Eminent Domain II at Pallas Projects is the second exhibition of an on-going project by Gillian Lawler which is inspired by the abandoned town of Centralia in Pennsylvania. Following the ignition of a coal vein beneath the town’s foundations in the 1960s, Centralia began to spout toxic gas from newly formed sinkholes left in the disaster’s wake. By the 1980s the town was declared unsafe and subsequently deserted, its residents relocated. Drawing from a field trip to Centralia in 2014, Lawler has channelled the town’s empty landscapes into eerie paintings of an acutely attentive and unique style. Although the works draw inspiration from this particular US disaster, there is an Irish quality to their chilling drabness: the grey hues, the melancholic tones, and the underlying sense of a slight and foolish optimism in the face of a devastating crisis.
The first painting, Relocation II, depicts a misty dreamscape with a superb sense of scale. Lawler’s expert and subtle brushwork is first evident here in the fragmented and scuffed black and white tiling that spans the image’s floor. There is an otherworldly sensibility to the painting, as highlighted by the impossible perspective which spans forever outwards into a cloudy sky that would appear heavenly if it weren’t so hauntingly barren. The tarnished and grubby surface of the canvas suggests flatness, contrasting with the expansive impossible space beneath. A hollow pyramidal shape hangs in an undetermined space above the skewed floor, the first glimpse of one of Lawler’s architectural insertions spread throughout each painting’s territory.
A tar-black smoke cloud emerges from the grey void of Relocation IV. A pale red shelf hangs suspended in the painting’s centre, casting a slight shadow into the misty nothingness which surrounds the blurred ambiguous tar-smoke. There is no visible source of the smoke. No fire, disaster, or wreckage in the uncertain grey mist – the running motif that encompasses all of the paintings – which is painted brilliantly to create ambiguous spaces and non-spaces. Like some impossibly normal dream there is a wrongness, an odd energy central to each painting that sucks the drabness of things into them like black holes of mundanity.
In Vent, a pale green fog, seemingly tethered by taut cords, bellows up into the painting’s ceiling. A couple of the cords are attached to a bright-red ring which tries to hug the fog as it squirms and leaks around the ring’s circumference. The title, Vent, suggests an attempt to redirect this noxious cloud before it endlessly diffuses outwards, but this looped red structure cannot contain the gas.
Relocation’s colours are reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel’s dim snowy landscapes. A blue sheet of colour is suspended into the painting from some unseen support structure above the painting’s boundaries. The blue sheet evaporates a soothing powder-blue mist into the environment like a trans-dimensional sci-fi relic, leaving ghostly traces of itself in the process of being realised in this new plane of existence. Its unsettling nature stems from its seeming lack of function, like a bizarre Kubrickian structure
Trautwine Street depicts the closest thing to what one might call ‘cosmopolitan’ of the displayed works. Lawler’s eerie park scene in Trautwine Street is like a cross between a gloomy impressionist painting and a hazy still from an early German expressionist film. Across the image is smeared a speckled tired row of creamy pink paint: A notably self-aware mark in the context of the show’s other works of near-perfectionist brushwork. The mark adds a sense of movement to the image like it is a passing spectre, or some snow caught on a sudden gust. Trautwine Street is unhaunted by the geometric structures of the other works, but underlined with a dark red line that is disconnected from the scene like blood gathered at the bottom of a receptacle in front of the image. It is a gruesome and subtle touch which is offset perfectly against the hushed scene, closer to horror than the sci-fi projections of the other exhibited works.
The treaded and re-treaded thematic terrain remains fresh in each different landscape due to Lawler’s adept painting technique which is tonally consistent but not repetitive or predictable. A large flat trellis structure is supplanted into the oozing pink-tinged smog of Breaker’s obfuscated rural landscape scene. Rigid diagonal blue lines are built into the painting like buttresses that sever the thick fog. The divide between the fuzzy dismal surroundings of the background and the clear structure in the foreground is broken again by small segments of cloudy smoke which creep up onto the structures edges like a clawing sentient monster.
A projector’s hum and rattle leaks into the gallery from a darkened second room where a slideshow of 76 treated slides, Eminent Domain, runs on a five minute loop. The mark-making in the doctored photos of Eminent Domain is somewhat playful, though the works are still littered with images of swathing black smoke clouds and inferred disaster. Like in black metal imagery, there is a forensic quality to the rural autumnal scenes of back roads overgrown with browning dead foliage. The second room holds the only sculptural work in the show: the diamond shaped Tower looks like a maquette of an extra-terrestrial monument, its checkerboard pattern referring back to the stretching floors of Relocation II.
The works are soaked in an overwhelming sadness that is somehow redemptive and cathartic. The exhibition offers a voyeuristic look into a world that is familiar and reflective of ours, but ultimately foreign and ungraspable. Lawler’s interest in sci-fi representations of desolation and devastation has led to a body of work that feels aptly speculative, although it is also grounded by a sense of close reflection on our society’s history of industry, and its ruinous potential.
Words: Aidan Wall