A flick of the wrist: The Backwater Artist Group Members show at Lavit Gallery by Sarah Long

 

‘Field Trip’ is a group exhibition of Backwater Artist Group members curated by Kevin Kavanagh and Alanah Murray. A field trip is an excursion to a place away from your normal environment, and each work in this show offers a glimpse into a vision of an alternate reality. Featuring artists Deirdre Frost, Angela Gilmour, Sean Hanrahan, Joseph Heffernan, Diane Magee, Susan Montogomery, Róisín O’Sullivan, Ben Reilly, Pádraig Spillane and Isabella Szczutkowska, the exhibition combines a multitude of perspectives. The artists are grouped under the curatorial thematic framework of ‘magic and loss, landscape and memory.’ Magic is perhaps the most applicable framing device for understanding the works on display. Every painting, sculpture or art object conjures distinct, unique, rich and crafted visual worlds. 

Sean Hanrahan’s combination of oil paint and silk screen printing creates silhouettes of organic forms pitched against atmospheric backdrops that resemble outer space. The three works from his Island Ruse series (2021-24) feature elongated ovals sitting horizontally in the skyline. An ominous glow of green or pale luminosity suggestive of alien-like hovercrafts surrounds each shape. The heightened and surreal colours further borrow from the tropes of science fiction. The scene is faintly dystopian; the landscapes are void of human life and suggest an elemental shift on the earth’s surface. The work’s composition, however, focuses on the staunch printed plant forms, demonstrating a robustness, if not a relentlessness, of this particular life form. In this reality, the plants, unlike humans, will be fine.   

Róisín O’Sullivan’s large oil painting, Moonshine (2024), hanging to the right of Hanrahan’s work, opens up another world. O’Sullivan has collected an extensive archive of wood throughout her practice and has developed expert knowledge in employing the pre-existing language of the material alongside her painterly expressions. This large dark scrap wood was salvaged from the Cork Printmakers and breathes a haunted quality of life through the artist’s delicately painted marks atop the piece’s rough surface. Stylized brush strokes of brilliant white render a circular light source in the painting’s centre. There is a quasi-religious feel to the scene resultantly. The flecks of ultramarine blue, dark red and yellow combine to create a stained glass palette. Is this orb the miraculous wandering star, a common device in the Greco-Roman world to designate the birth of a hero? The storybook-like interlacing hanging branches that guide the path towards it certainly intimate something glorious is afoot. The surface’s history gives the work a weighted meaning as if we have stumbled across a discarded section of a mediaeval triptych.  

Similarly, Ben Reilly’s Foot (2024) feels like a remnant of ancient history. The cast of a foot sits, petrified, atop a wooden pole. There is a violence suggested in the display: the foot and its wooden limb defy gravity, soaring above head height. The wood can be understood as a limb or that the foot has completely separated from the body and sits on a spike. The sole of the foot is strangely beautiful in spite of this undercurrent of death. It is soft; the arch’s specialised and functional skin has been moulded to the labour of living. The black quality of the wax suggests the foot may have been burnt, or perhaps it is the foot of a bog body poking out through the earth. The sculpture stands resolute on the gallery floor as though bearing witness to the human body it represents. 

Deirdre Frost’s oil paintings on wood carry a similar retro fantasy feel to Hanrahan’s work. The screen of an old-fashioned television monitor is implied by a rounded flower frame in Of Gorse (2023) and Change the Channel (2024). Indeed, the latter title further indicates this narrative. However, Frost’s television set is created through a plush, pastel-pink depiction of sea thrifts. The paint application is rich and buttery; blobs of magenta move out into pastel pinks with thick white flickers. The painted frame captures a landscape scene; we are looking at the world through the eyes of the artist. In fact, Frost uses the wood’s natural defects to illuminate a pre-existing landscape within the wood grain. A large white swathe reads as a cloud, a dark upright vertical, a lone lighthouse. The artist has captured a living, breathing landscape in an everyday material for the viewer to enter and explore. 

Pádraig Spillane’s collages further expand on this feeling of possible openings in our every day. Appearances (2024) combines a series of the artist’s collages into a steel structure that occupies the gallery’s floor space. The zig-zag connections between the combined individual frames read like a DNA model. Its helix-like coiling formation comprises separate collages that depict ‘glitches’ or ruptures in the genetic system. One image, with hands pulling at a vulva-like shape to hold it open, is at once futuristic and also reminiscent of the Síle na Gig stone carving tradition. The hands are computer generated, and the nature of the imagery suggests a hybridity of form, perhaps suggestive of some kind of Donna Harway ‘cyborg’ existence. There is something hopeful in Spillane’s imagery; the gashes, splits and orifices of the artist’s collages present promisingly as portals of potential discovery. 

Joseph Heffernan’s three oil paintings in the show shine a light on the world living in the shadows. The Devil’s Invitation (2023) depicts a harlequin-like figure. The gender of the subject is ambiguous– are these the features of a gamine film starlet or the soft features of a young boy? The light glow building behind the figure creates the sense they are standing in a spotlight. The paint strokes depict the dreamlike nature of this world as if it would slip away from you when the light shifts and figures would dematerialise and reappear in different forms and poses. The titles of the two smaller works, The Silent Era IV and The Silent Era III (2023), allude to the dramatic, shadowy world of early cinema. Heffernan’s world of deep contours evokes the trickery and mischief of the era when magicians and performers transitioned from the music hall to the film studio. Things are not quite as they appear, yet the big wide eyes of the lone earnest figures that populate The Silent Era paintings captivate. The paintings centre on the two faces that appear larger than life and larger than the picture’s frame.  

Each artist frames scenes of teeming life: Angela Gilmour’s ice-piercing white renders scenes of the Arctic; Diane Magee’s mystical white cow is shrouded in the fog of the Burren landscape; Izabela Szczutkowska offers square windows into grey tones that reveal themselves as rocks and eyes; and the thick oil-painted worlds of Susan Montgomery’s imagination reveal the most beautiful of tones emerging from the darkest of shadows. 

Surveying the works included in the show, I am struck by the mastery of materiality by each of the featured artists. They have created the exact rules of their visual worlds with authority and careful craftsmanship. The effect is such that it feels as if each artist, with a flick of their wrist, has called forth a magical otherworld, and we are invited to go on a field trip and study them for endless possible meanings.  

 

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