Rita Donagh, born in Wednesbury in 1939, came to prominence in the early to mid-1970s with a series of drawings and paintings related to the shooting of student demonstrators at Kent State University and the troubles in Northern Ireland.
This is the largest retrospective ever devoted to her work, and includes paintings from as early as the mid-1950s as well as recent works in which she has returned to her roots to find inspiration in maps of the Black Country and its canals.
In fact, a common thread through this work is an interest in " mapping", the whole idea of fixing the physical world on to a twodimensional plane by the conventions of drawing. It gives Donagh's work a strongly academic flavour, and Reflection on three Weeks in May 1970, which contains the Kent State references, came directly out of a studio exercise the artist conducted with a group of students.
On the other hand, references to the Irish troubles brought elements of "hot" news to this cool academic art, as well as an implication of political stance. Donagh is of Irish descent and was also teaching parttime in Belfast at this time.
The chief motif on which she focused was the victim of a bombing (actually in Dublin rather than Belfast) whose body had been covered by pages from the evening newpapers on sale nearby.
This prompted a lengthy series of paintings and drawings whose origins are most clearly expressed in After the Talbot Street Blast (1974) in which a drawing of the vague human form under its newpaper shroud is juxtaposed with a collage treatment of the same image, in which the material used is itself newsprint.
The use of newspapers in collage, repeated in many more treatments of the subject included in this exhibition, has roots in Cubism, and time has now aged these 1970s cuttings to standard Cubist brownness.
For me, the fatal weakness of Donagh's work is the lack of a vital relationship between form and content. For example, a news photograph of young gay men striking poses to taunt police on New York's 42nd Street is plundered for a series of abstract studies, for a purpose which remains elusive beyond the fact that such mass media sources were fashionable at this time.
Donagh apparently has nothing to say about gay lib, and appears to have nothing to say about Ireland either. The death of a Dublin pedestrian (actually a teenage girl: the account of her death by an eyewitness quoted in the catalogue is heart-rending) or a military bandsman are emotive subjects grafted on to otherwise dry visual exercises, as though to bestow an emotional power and significance which is otherwise absent.
Nevertheless, I was looking forward to the recent Black Countryinspired works. But if anything they are even more disappointing: they are just maps, lacking any transformative dimension.
* Until Nov 13 (Tue-Sun 11am-6pm; admission free).