Niamh O’Malley is a landscape artist, but not as we know it. She replaces lush greens, hazy blues and russets with the softened austerity of monochrome, if not strictly black and white, then faded and sun-bleached sepia tones. She rejects the notion of a viewing spot, eschewing framing devices and single views to circle, shift or nervously hover around, making the gaze of her film pieces feel more akin to sculpture than anything two-dimensional.
For her new show at Douglas Hyde Gallery, she presents new work, including two video pieces. In one, Glasshouse, we are in the arid atmosphere of a greenhouse, looking out through panes of glass on which the residue of rain has dried and crystalised, leaving but a salty trace. In an accompanying essay, Rebecca O’Dwyer describes it as having ‘a kind of “dryness”… there remains neither colour nor sound; all that persists is a sense of drought, baited breath; the dizziness of attention’.
The second piece, Nephin, circles around Nephin Mountain, County Mayo, the second highest peak in Connaught. In soft tones of black and white, O’Malley’s lens picks up on the peak shakily and roves around it, as perhaps one might experience it from a passing car. A single black, spot-like mark on the window pane interrupts our scenic view, an irritating blight on the landscape. The urge to smudge it off is tangible.
Nephin is no grandiose helicopter shot. It’s a humble depiction of a mountain that O’Malley grew up in the vicinity of, and so for her, it is the everyday. O’Dwyer points out in her essay how the familiarity can obscure beauty, that we often need to be reminded of the aesthetic power of the landscape we are accustomed to. ‘Overly familiar and known, they slip from the mind. To go back to Nephin … is a way of rethinking the place; it is a form of re-engagement, never passive, that seeks to unravel as it creates’. In a sense, O’Malley’s familiarity with the mountain is the black dot on the viewing pane, erasing her capacity for an unblemished viewing experience.
O’Malley’s representation subtly trades in that Romantic concept of The Sublime, though John Hutchison does draw our attention to a Romantic or melancholic core buried deep within the work. Rather than fear-inducing cliff faces and crashing waves, O’Malley brings our awareness to our own state as observers within the landscape. She turns our attention instead to the act of seeing, looking and perceiving. For her, an act that is most often interrupted.
In an exhibition at Project Arts Centre last year, Garden, O’Malley explored the (manmade) landscape of her own backyard in North Dublin. We saw the railway wall that hemmed it in, the plants that crept up its façade. And yet the view we get, even in this familiar space, is filtered: reflected through a mirror, held by some mysterious figure and tilting melodically to expose new pastures. We are being shown the garden in fragments, never quite sating our visual appetite.
It’s probably no coincidence that in the Douglas Hyde’s Gallery 2, the smaller antechamber to the main gallery, there is a show of new work by Mairead O’hEocha, three years on from her solo show in Gallery 1, via An Lár. Like O’Malley, O’hEocha is an artist involved deeply with the Irish landscape. And though the aesthetic and media is quite different, O’hEocha similarly tugs at the sleeve of the landscape genre, shunning epic narratives for small-scale, quietened and thoughtful depictions of place.
Via An Lár depicted ‘edgelands’, the suburban petering out of Irish cities, shifting our attention away from the natural landscape and onto the point at which the city bleeds into it. In this context, we are always acutely aware of human presence in the land, and the mark it leaves. With O’Malley, the eye is shifted back onto ourselves. In analysing the act of viewing, O’Malley touches upon memory, attachment and human connection to landscape (particularly at places like Nephin, which has such a longstanding connection to her), but she strips this memory of the sentimental. Instead we get the arid asphyxia of Glasshouse. Lashes flickering, pupils darting, the world comes in and out of focus.
Niamh O’Malley and Mairead O’hEocha’s work exhibits at Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, from Friday 12th December to Wednesday 25th February.