PERCHED precariously and absurdly on the landmark Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, a black-and-white cow stares passively out at the viewer. The cliffs themselves float detached from land in a dark blue, cloud-streaked sky. A tiny flag, streaming from its bent pole, springs from nowhere, attached to nothing. Disturbing in form as well as content, this painting - ``On the Balcony of the Nation,'' by Dermot Seymour - embodies the complex, frightening, baffling realities of life in Belfast today.
It also lends its enigmatic title to the traveling exhibition from Northern Ireland now at Chicago's Peace Museum.
The show addresses the 300-year-old history of the troubles between Protestant and Catholic partisans.
The five artists represented (four men, one woman, three of whom are Roman Catholic, two Protestant) address the absurdities in that dissension as well as its sorrows. It is in every way a strong, engrossing show.
And though the symbolism is largely private to Ireland, most of the works leap the Atlantic on sheer emotional propulsion: Even if we don't understand the exact meaning of some images, we can feel the agonized bewilderment of the artists on the one hand, and their determined, rational resistance to the evils of civil strife on the other.
Much of that resistance may be read as humor. Seymour's sloe-eyed Bossy, rendered in pristine realism, gazes dolefully at us from an impossible space, the top half of the painting so heavy with her unbalanced presence, she just may pitch over any second. Her situation is not only absurd and dangerous, it's goofy.
According to Peace Museum director Peter Ratajczak, the cow represents the Irish people; the cliffs are so famous in Ireland anyone there would recognize them at once. And the flag is another obscure joke about Ulster.
But while this explanation may underscore the sociopolitical content of the work and enrich one's viewing, the painting is marvelous without explanation. Indeed, many another ``reading'' of content would do as well. Because what does leap the culture gap is the challenge that cow offers to our own concepts of reality and balance.
Seymour weaves religious symbols into some paintings, and all of his titles are bizarre and obscure. He attacks agricultural pollution in one painting and the decimation of the American Indian in another. Nothing is exactly what it seems in his paintings, and realism struggles with the unreal against swirling skies.
Seymour's brash wit and feeling-laden paintings find sharp contrast in the cool intellectual precision of Chris Wilson's mixed-media collages.
Wilson's church or institution interiors are all in various states of decay. Grass grows up next to a Gothic pew. Potatoes try to root and grow on a ruined church floor.
Where sunlight glances through a window, it reveals a patch of map - usually of Belfast but of many another city or state as well. Cut to define shape within the precincts of the interior space, the maps may remind us of territorial control. Wilson's carefully restricted autumnal palette, too, casts a cool shadow over the visitor.
Mickey Donnelly takes many of his images form Irish history. Emblems of the Protestant and the Catholic factions contend on canvas for presence and power.
His rich, painterly brush strokes feather massive flowers laden with symbolic meaning or hats representing different factions, giving the oversized objects softness and mass.
Gordon Woods's craftsmanlike sculptures of wood, bone, wax, stone, and iron recall primitive religious objects. The integration of organic and inorganic materials seem to comment on the environment. But his most interesting forms owe much to ancient Indian petroglyphs.
Clearly influenced by German Expressionism, Rita Duffy studies the urban working-class. Wit and horror vie for ascendancy in these paintings, and at times they come irritatingly close to caricature.
If it weren't for the archness of her wit, the work might merely sink into pessimism.
All of these artists are reacting to the realities of embattled life in Northern Ireland and all of them lambaste the history of violence without despairing of change - there are, after all, signs of change in Ireland.
``On the Balcony of the Nation'' presents high art in the service of peace, and it is well placed in the first peace museum dedicated, not as a memorial to lives lost in war, but to ``education in peace.''
``It's hard to find shows that stand on their own artistically as well as educationally - that is, as peace education,'' says Mr. Ratajczak.
In its nine-year history, the Peace Museum has mounted a number of shows of artistic merit that also meet its rigorous standards on peace and civil-liberties education.
Some of those shows originated at the museum and others were brought in.
Among the high-profile exhibitions organized by the Peace Museum were ``Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Peacemaker,'' ``The Ribbon: A Celebration of Life,'' ``John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period,'' and ``Play Fair: An Exhibit of Nonviolent Toys and Games.''
The prestigious exhibition ``Committed to Print,'' organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art and featuring artists like Jim Dine, Andy Warhol, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, and Robert Rauchenberg, came to the Peace Museum, the exhibit's only Midwestern venue.
Most of the museum's own shows travel to other museums, universities, and other educational institutions.
The Peace Museum was developed in 1981 by Chicago artist/activist Mark Rogovin and Marjorie Benton, then US ambassador to UNICEF.
They saw plenty of memorials to war, none dedicated to the history of peacemaking.
Americans may be inclined to picture the so-called peace- movement as an offspring of the Vietnam war and the arms race, but the museum displays trace its visible history back to the Spanish- American War, with buttons demanding peace. Memorabilia from every armed conflict in which the US was involved decorate many of the walls.
But the definition of ``peace'' at the museum has evolved to include more than just war protesting and anti-nuke demonstrations. Peacemaking and peacemakers are actively celebrated.
The ``Balcony'' is one such celebration. Issues of social justice, of civil liberty, and of ecology make up the Peace Museum's agenda. ``We have to make peace with the Earth,'' Ratajczak says.
With a modest annual budget of $300,000, the Peace Museum keeps its shows circulating and develops new ones. The pride and joy of the institution is its ``volunteer army - literally hundreds of volunteers,'' Ratajczak says. Organized as ``Another Day,'' the volunteers turn out when called.
``We have skilled carpenters and electricians donating 40 hours a week of their time when we mount a new show. If we need a new brochure, a graphic artist volunteers time to design it. The volunteer army is our most valuable asset.''
Tucked away in a warehouse district of Chicago, the museum is hard to spot - especially with current renovations going on.
New galleries continue to move in as the neighborhood renews itself. But right now, the outside resembles a dive rather than a respectable museum. The surprise lies inside, where an inviting white-wall-and-brick gallery-space beckons. Folksy music (in this case, Irish) plays softly.
The informal atmosphere is perfect for an exhibition like ``On the Balcony of the Nation,'' which, of course, is not ``art for art's sake.''
Carefully and intelligently laid out and with enough placards to help bridge the culture gap between Irish artists and American viewers, ``Balcony'' unfolds in an atmosphere meant to stimulate thought. Didacticism is minimized. The art, finally, speaks for itself.
``On the Balcony of the Nation,'' which was organized by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Lawndale Art and Performance Center in Houston, continues at the Peace Museum in through Sept. 29.
Then it moves to the American International College in Springfield, Mass., Oct. 26-Nov. 30, before going on to the Art Center in Waco, Tex.