Sinister Charms: Fern O’Carolan’s You’ll Never Get to Heaven at No Gallery

Review / February 2023
Sinister Charms: Fern O’Carolan’s You’ll Never Get to Heaven at No Gallery
By Isis Davis-Marks

Recalling early experiences is difficult. I try to remember fuzzy flashbacks of my grandfather snapping photos of peonies in Central Park or my mother taking me to a third-grade talent show. Now, I ask myself: Are these images accurate, or are they apparitions, jauntily assembled features of my subconscious that were spliced together to create something resembling a narrative? I usually think that they’re the latter, so I shove them into the recesses of my imagination, telling myself that my most monstrous memories are just false realities.

Fern O’Carolan’s debut solo show, You'll Never Get to Heaven, asked me to consider such quandaries about childhood, about memory. The exhibition—which took place in Chinatown’s No Gallery from December 10, 2022, through January 15, 2023—featured six sculptures harkening back to the artist’s upbringing in Dublin’s Northside and her education at a public single-sex Catholic school. Many of these works question how this environment vilified femininity and how it dealt with the developing sexuality of its students.

Like O’Carolan, when I think of my girlhood, I think of cutesy kitsch undercut with trauma: I remember heart-shaped charms and Lisa Frank boxes decorated with intricate patterns that featured butterflies and flowers. But I also remember my mother reprimanding me for wearing short skirts and putting on vanilla-flavored Lip Smackers—I saw these acts as naïve explorations, but to her they signified a burgeoning sexuality that needed to be suppressed. So, when I look at O’Carolan’s sculptures, I feel a connection to her investigations of innocence.

Take Woof (2022) for example. The multimedia work is a clustered compilation of fabric-printed photographs—which were sourced from old women’s magazines and underground blogs—including an austere-appearing blonde woman, an assortment of rifles, and a too-zoomed-in pair of panties. These are signifiers of both pain and pleasure, a nod to the late 2010s BDSM aesthetics that influenced the piece. Chains and metal hooks bind the photos (which are cut into shapes like flowers and circles), both speaking to the conflict between these evocative images and arousing associations with my long-forgotten pieces of jewelry. But O’Carolan’s images feel like more sinister versions of my childhood charms; looking at them in a gallery setting makes me feel slightly uneasy, like a child who got caught scribbling on a wall.

“It was a form of commentary,” O’Carolan said when I spoke to her about the show. “Although the images are quite cute and they allude to innocence and purity, they are still violent. Those pictures are there to make you [remember]. You look at the materiality and everything else, it alludes to the context of emotional violence—that’s what they are meant to signify.”

This comment becomes clearer in the religious and political climate of O’Carolan’s youth. As a child who attended a traditional Catholic school, the artist grew up with no local access to abortion and limited sexual education—instructors only told her that she “would be condemned to hell for [her] sin against God” if she had any form of sex with a man before marriage, as O’Carolan said in the press release.  This environment also espoused traditional Christian ideas of what a “good” woman should be, emphasizing that women should be adept at domestic skills like embroidery and cooking. However, You'll Never Get to Heaven turned this idea of “women’s work” on its head, using those same traditional sewing skills to criticize repressive views of sexuality.

You Are So Special to Us (2022) exemplifies this tension between the sensual and the spiritual. The piece includes another unexpected array of fabric-printed photographs: a pair of downturned eyes, a cartoon woman sporting devil horns, a shirtless man holding a gun, two hands joined together in prayer, and a heart that contains the phrase “If you ever need me, whistle.” These collaged elements add to the materiality of the sculpture, giving a sense of tactility to the odd—and somewhat violent—compilation of images. A nearly two-foot-long safety pin outfitted with a silver crucifix adjoins these pictures, which also imbues the piece a Catholic schoolgirl aesthetic, a nod to another 2010s subculture known as TradCath.

As Biz Sherbert writes in the i-D article “How Catholicism Became alt-fashion’s Saviour,” such aesthetics allow for a “dialectic of irony and sincerity.” You Are So Special to Us also taps into this sentiment with its disparate imagery, and depictions like the cartoon devil seem provocative when it’s placed in such proximity to a crucifix, prompting me to ask if I should place desire next to death.

Throughout the show, O’Carolan raises similar compositional questions without providing definitive answers. Instead of resolving such queries, she takes us on disjointed journey of disparate images, splicing together found materials in a way that transcends language, inviting the viewer to freely associate between the photographs and create their own narratives.

Image Credits:
Image 1: Installation View,You’ll Never Get to Heaven (2022-3); Courtesy of No Gallery
Image 2: Installation View,You’ll Never Get to Heaven (2022-3); Courtesy of No Gallery
Image 3: Woof (2022), Fern O’Carolan; Courtesy of No Gallery
Image 4: You Are So Special to Us (2022), Fern O’Carolan; Courtesy of No Gallery
Image 5: Always and Forever (2022), Fern O’Carolan; Courtesy of No Gallery