Huge, ancient magnolias are in full bloom in Ireland’s oldest garden, which surrounds Lismore Castle, in the Waterford countryside. Mauve aubretia crawls up stone walls, while stiff white daffodils and maroon fritillaries bow and curtsy to each other on the lawns. Edmund Spenser is said to have composed his epic poem The Faerie Queene in the gnarly yew walk in the late 16th century, though the magnolias were a Victorian addition, creating a glorious spring garden for successive dukes of Devonshire.
It’s almost as if the 1922 creation of the Irish Free State never happened, except of course we, the general public, are only here because it did. The compulsory purchase of land from English landowners that followed it left Lismore with seven acres with which to support the upkeep of a whole heap of crumbling masonry. The response of the latest heirs, the Earl and Countess of Burlington, has been to rent out the castle over the summer, let the formal gardens run wild, and convert one of its derelict outbuildings into an art gallery, which has been operating as a not-for-profit enterprise since 2005. Its new summer show – girls girls girls – is a class act, both cheekily of the moment and locked in a whispered conversation with its historic surroundings.
In the case of one painting, Genieve Figgis’s Upstairs Downstairs, the whisper becomes a shout. This is the only work that was personally selected by its (Irish) artist: it’s Downton Abbey meets the Mexican day of the dead, with ghoulish lords and ladies flanked by de-faced maidservants, in a travesty of one of those excruciating all-together photographs that were so beloved of Victorian aristocrats.
The painting commands attention, striking a subversive note that feels a bit out of kilter until you turn around and find the discomfort staring back at you from the opposite wall, where a pair of black twins in neat blue frocks stand, looking away from each other, with their hands anxiously clasped. There’s no explanatory text, leaving curator Simone Rocha to explain the story behind Mozambique-born Cassi Namoda’s painting: these were real twins, who were born into slavery in the US and sold to a circus freak show.
Rocha, a fashion designer who has created quite a thrill in her native Ireland, has used her licence as a charismatic art-world outsider to gather an impressively varied, international collection of work by female artists with an age span between them of nearly 90 years. The oldest is Louise Bourgeois, a longtime muse of Rocha, who would be 110 if she were still alive. The youngest is just 23. All were chosen for works that “inspire, challenge and engage with femininity and its subversive characteristics”. Some stare you down and others are more hidden, she says. “I wanted them to all speak to each other.”
The tortures of fashion are never far away. A pink patterned blouse is embalmed in wax by the German Canadian artist Iris Haeussler. It looks as if it’s gasping for air. Ouch, I felt, as I reeled from Dorothy Cross’s 1994 cow-udder installation Stilettos – each pointed toe a shrivelled teat – to a surrealist photograph by Petra Collins of shoes so deforming that one big toe juts out like an old tree trunk. But if you lean too hard on overt connections, you might miss the delicate, Chagall-like whimsicality of Georgian artist Elene Chantladze, a one-off, whose paintings on stone and old cardboard sit in two vitrines.
The baby of the show is the formidably talented Sian Costello, who works in Limerick and is yet to be snapped up by a gallery. Her three paintings titled Wishful Self-Portrait show a girl who could be a Velázquez infanta, or a model in one of Rocha’s puffy Victorian nightie-inspired gowns that were much in evidence over the launch weekend, but was inspired by Whistler’s women in white, says Costello. The images are smudgy, ambivalent, and one is missing her head, so that all that remains is the performance of her frock. These little girls punch above their weight.
Twenty-six-year-old Sophie Barber exerts a different sort of authority, dominating the long gallery with a huge oil painting of two pink huts on stilts, mysteriously titled The Greatest Song a Songbird Ever Sang. Look sideways, and there are two sets of songbirds smooching in miniature. One is of actual birds (Barber, who grew up and still lives in Hastings, cites her birder father as a key influence). The other is of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. To give such a young artist such pole position is a bold and sisterly move, and in both scale and colour (there’s a lot of pink in the room so, hey, why not shout it loud?), it works.
It’s not until you get to the two ante-rooms that the doyennes of the show appear. A series of Cindy Sherman’s crisply composed Bus Riders self-portraits sit at a right angle to a series of closeups of Roni Horn’s weather-battered face on a trip to Iceland. The lips of Polish Holocaust survivor Alina Szapocznikow are lit up in a ghoulish humanoid table lamp made from a lump of orange resin shortly before her premature death in 1973.
Only then do we arrive at two pieces by Bourgeois, tucked away in their own little turret at the show’s farthest reach. Rocha says she chose 1968’s Janus in Leather Jacket because of its reference to clothing, but to the uninitiated eye, it dangles in mid-air like a fat turd that someone has tried to cover up with pages from a book. An untitled 1993 bronze cross of four clasped hands, with a little house at the end of one arm, points an ironic elbow at the relationship between women and home. The positioning makes you think as well as wait. The turret is both a life sentence and a fantasy: a constraining Bourgeois cell, and a perfect little tower-room in a fairytale castle, such as little girls dream of before they awake to the realities of life.
Though girls girls girls is the main attraction, it’s not the only show in town. A kilometre along the road in an old methodist chapel, the American artist Matt Connors has installed four bright, abstract paintings which exactly replicate its windows but are placed upside down on the opposite wall. The installation is titled Invert, a nod to his struggles with his own sexuality and catholicism. At the right time of day, when the late afternoon sun slants through the stained glass, casting a brilliantly coloured net across the floor, you could stand here and bathe in the beauty of being out and proud.