Cork-based, mixed-media Irish artist Alice Maher creates drawings, paintings, collages, and installations that reveal a dreamscape of surreal drama that references mythology from her rural Irish childhood. Her works often deal with gender issues present in traditional Irish Catholic beliefs, and she tells how these beliefs laid down “many layers of intellectual repression.” Her works use female images, clothing, and even hair – real or drawn.
Maher studied at the National Institute for Higher Education and received her B.A. in 1978. She attended art school in Cork from 1981-1985 and received her M.F.A. from Belfast’s University of Ulster in 1986. She won a post-graduate Fulbright scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute 1986-1987.
In 1988, Maher’s made an installation which consisted of paintings of four major scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary: the Annunciation, Birth, Visitation, and Coronation. They were painted on old bedsheets to question the glorification of virginal purity in Catholicism.
In 1992, she made two oil paintings on paper, “Irish Dancers,” which show two girls trying to dance in the elaborately stiff costumes of traditional Irish dance. The girl on the left is barely seen as she is overwhelmed by her dress; however she is protected and safe. The girl on the right looks tense in her dark red dress. Her hands are clenched in a fist, and her face shows strain and anxiety. These two paintings – joined together – suggest both the nurturing and confined characteristics of traditional Irish culture, particularly for young women, since these two dresses not only do not fit properly but actually inhibit the ability of the girls to dance.
In 1994, her series “Familiar” was shown at the Sao Paulo Bienal. This series plays with the ancient idea of the witch’s ‘familiar’, which is understood to be a stand-in for the Devil. This series has elements of painting, sculpture, and installation as her color-field abstract painting is either combined with sculpture or an accompanying object. Her “Familiar 1” involves a large-scale red, acrylic painting next to a piece made from hundreds of long strands of flax, which pools onto the floor and resembles hair. Her “Familiar IV” is an oil and acrylic work on canvas, augmented with a hand-woven bale of flax on light steel. This enigmatic series references the lore of witchcraft where the female is feral, which is both a pagan and a Christian concept, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer.
Maher often uses materials that can provoke fear or revulsion. An early site-specific work “Cell” 1991 was remade for the 2013 Dublin retrospective. It consisted of a large ball of brambles, measuring over six feet in diameter. Woven in a small prison cell, its overwhelming size evoked the pain of those imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) over the centuries. From the same period, a series of drawings “The Thicket” showed an adolescent girl struggling to stand in spite of obstacles in her path.
Maher has had solo exhibitions in galleries in Cork, Belfast, Dublin, and London. She has participated in group exhibitions in Sao Paolo 22 Bienal Brazil, MoMA Dublin, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Hilden Museum in Finland, and Boston College’s Museum of Art as well as others.
A major retrospective exhibition of her work was presented by Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2012-2013. Her work can be seen in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fogg Museum at Harvard University, the British Museum, Pompidou Centre, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.