Rita Donagh confounds the usual periodic table of art-historical movements and sensibilities. Since the late 1950s she has been making work that engages with a resolute conflation of aesthetic refinement and ideological pronouncement. As such, her art maintains a palpable tension between the exploration of technique and the articulation of political events and social identities.
Donagh’s work reveals her heightened sense of empathy and rare psychological acuity – the razor-keen edge of which is expressed through a visual language of profound eloquence. Cartography grids and tenebrous half-light, maps, newspapers, shrouds, outlines, the consequences of terrorism and the incarceration of political prisoners, history, reflection and reflectiveness, gender, martyrdom – all of these contribute to the meticulous charting within her work of a quality that the theologian Roger Poole once defined as ‘ethical space’ – that is, the subjective geography of an area as it might be created and re-created by the consequence of human actions.
Born of an Irish mother and Anglo-Irish father in the ‘Black Country’ of England’s industrial Midlands, in the late 1950s Donagh attended Newcastle University Department of Fine Art, where she was taught by both Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore. The Pedagogical Sketchbooks (1925) of Paul Klee, Hamilton’s lectures on design and form, and Pasmore’s teaching on Modernism and abstraction would all be vital influences – as would the work of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp and, a little later, that of Andy Warhol.
As surveyed by this compelling retrospective exhibition (covering almost 50 years of work, made between 1956 and 2005), Donagh’s art has pursued, on one level, a determined inquiry into the possibilities opened up by the dialogue between figurative art and abstraction. Consequently, her art enfolds the viewer in its progressive questioning of its own representational capacity.
This process found early, bravura expression in her transposition through successive media of an image found in Life magazine of young gay men taunting police surveillance on 42nd Street, New York. From its source as a documentary ‘human interest’ photograph through the mapping and blocking of its figures onto a prepared grid, then using their outline to inform a sculptural piece comprising fluorescent argon tubing (Contour, 1967–8), Donagh’s deconstruction of this particular image seems pivotal to the development of her art. For in addition to furthering her artistic inquiries the process of this work establishes a thematic link between documentary evidence of a situation, its subsequent mediation and its eventual reconstitution, in art, as a form almost of cultural pathology, at once commemorative and diagnostic.
Donagh has become best known, perhaps, for the work that she has produced in response to what have been journalistically described as ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Specifically, her work has recorded both the violent confrontations in Northern Ireland between the British military and various armed political factions and the subsequent creation of the ‘H-block’ prisons for political internees – so called because of their eerie, H-shape design.
In dealing with these highly emotive, aesthetically recalcitrant subjects Donagh heightens their tragedy – the immovable quotidian facts of their horror – by employing an almost forensic precision in her recording of them: the position of a bomb victim’s body covered in newspaper or the lifeless hand of a slain guardsman. Similarly, her treated and painted maps of Northern Ireland’s embattled ‘Six Counties’ (Shadow of the Six Counties, 1979–80) or portentous, deathly aerial views of the H-blocks themselves have an almost radiographic quality to their depiction of a country and a society mired in militarism and fear.
With an intensity that is amplified, paradoxically, by its initial apparent visual quietude, Donagh’s art is both assertive and questioning, its outward gaze at the world as unflinching as its ceaseless self-interrogation. Ultimately, it is an art that – aesthetically attuned to cartography, grids and diagrammatic schemas – seems to map the co-ordinates of individual or social subjectivity, charting our historical position within circumstances as random and unanswerable as the weather. In these days of increasing fundamentalism, urban paranoia and political volatility the art of Donagh has never seemed more prescient, nor its diagnostic vision more acute.