Signs that Ciara Lee adores dancing are never far away.
In her studio on the first floor of a former warehouse off Pearse Street, square canvases above the doorway and propped against walls show joyous scenes of raves and nightclubs observed in Dublin, Brussels and Berlin.
Characters in mid-groove, their arms flail and contort. Eyes shut and mouths agape, they are carefree, appearing unaware that they were in that moment being observed.
There’s no clue where her subjects are exactly. The backdrops are simple colours, sky blue and acid green.
Lee is also in her element when she loses herself in dancing, the artist says. She has the words “boogie woogie” tattooed across her legs, and a discman on her desk.
“I’m always trying to capture a part of that in my work. A representation of euphoria,” she says.
Last Friday afternoon, Lee was readying these works to be carried across the city to The Horse gallery on Bethesda Place behind Parnell Square.
There, they are scheduled to be shown as part of “Realism at the Dawn of the Apocalypse”, a dual show with Lily Musker, a figurative painter from Gloucestershire in England.
Lee says the exhibition’s theme made her delve into her own work from a different starting point.
There was always the element of escapism that she saw in it herself, she says. “But I suppose now it looks at these moments where, even as the world is collapsing, you can still have these moments of joy.”
Student of dance
Born and raised in Dublin, Lee studied fine art at the National College of Art and Design, she says. “I had hated painting before then.”
The materials you would get at school frustrated her, she says. “Painting on paper just doesn’t have the same feeling as a canvas. It always came out chalky.”
It was in college that she began to delve into dance as a subject matter, she says. “I felt more like myself and could dance wholly, fully. I liked how people didn’t care how I looked, and I liked seeing that in others too.”
In one of the brightest spots of her studio space, which is lit through a clear corrugated roof, she has a piece with six people dancing. The figures, male and female, wear baseball caps, beanies and baggy clothes, colourful and some decorated in jagged patterns.
The youngest look to be in their late teens or early twenties. The oldest is a man with long white hair and a beard.
Lee organised them in a star-like formation against a blue background with faint streaks of red cascading downward like rain.
It’s the purity in everyday people cutting loose that draws her attention, she says. “I don’t take photographs of professional dancers. These are just people dancing for enjoyment and pleasure.”
Some of the people Lee photographed and later painted were from a festival in Belgium. The bearded man, she says, was spotted in Mauerpark in Berlin, which is where she moved after graduating in 2016.
Lee lived in the German capital for five years, before returning to Dublin in 2021.
But she prefers observing the atmosphere in her home city’s nightlife, she says. “In Germany, you see a lot more repetitive movement. That can be amazing to see, but there is something almost, like, uncontrollable about an Irish dance floor. And I just find that amazing.”
On Monday evening, behind the Maldron Hotel on Upper Dorset Street, a white Volkswagen bus is parked outside the entrance to The Horse.
A poster for the “Realism at the Dawn of the Apocalypse” show is fixed in the back window. It features one of Lily Musker’s pieces, a scrubbing brush atop a round wooden table in a dark shadowy enclosure.
The gallery’s echoey interior is white with a yellow wooden staircase. Lee and Musker wander about inside, lining works up against the walls, trailed by Musker’s three spritely whippets.
She had come over by ferry and brought at least 18 paintings, she said. The next step was whittling this number down for the exhibition.
“I’m blind to them all by now,” she says to Lee and Matthew Wilkinson, the gallery’s founder and curator. “So what’s going up is whatever you guys think.”
Musker’s work juxtaposes scenes from everyday life in Gloucestershire with characters from Greek mythology and fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood.
Her works are often saturated in shadows, with a colour palette of dark reds and browns. In her outdoor scenes, the full moon generally hangs overhead in the background, while a thin fog cloaks her subjects – people, dogs, horses – that wander about in the foreground.
There is a moodiness to Musker’s body of work, Lee says. “But there is also something warm and wholesome, and even playful.”
Many of her works are contemporary reimaginings of master painters, including Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Burton Barber and Eugene Delacroix.
Reimagining iconic works from previous centuries is a major component of her own practice, she says.
“It’s the line from Banksy: ‘The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal,’” she says, referring to a quote which the Bristol street artist stole from Pablo Picasso.
In one particular piece, “The Adoration of the Squincey”, she reimagined Da Vinci’s “The Adoration of the Magi”, replacing a newborn Jesus Christ and his mother Mary with a man in sunglasses, filling balloons with helium.
Da Vinci’s crowd of onlookers are swapped for men laying about in a park under a twilight sky, clutching beers and passed out.
Neither Lee nor Musker’s paintings were necessarily influenced by the apocalypse in any way, says Wilkinson, the gallery owner. “It was really about what they said to me, because in these times, it’s really what everyone is waiting for.”
It is the spirit of freedom in their works that sparked the idea of creating a narrative about what the world might resemble during an apocalyptic event, he says. “With Ciara’s work, dancing is a free spontaneous expression that can’t usually be commodified.”
“It can’t be bought,” Musker says. “It can’t be bought.”