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A Second World − any given day

Every minute, the mist became thicker. The air became colder still and everything became paler and paler until soon there was nothing but grey and white all around them. They were in a country of swirling mists and ghostly vapours. There was some sort of grass underfoot but it was not green. It was ashy grey

This passage from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG (1982) narrates the environmental changes met with by the protagonists of the story – a ten-year-old girl and the titular Big Friendly Giant – during their fantastical expedition from Giant Country to Dream Country. However, it also serves as an appropriate description of the metempsychotic journey undertaken by viewers encountering Bernadette Kiely’s recent works on canvas and paper.

Prompted by the death of her mother, the last surviving member of the preceding generation of her family, Kiely found herself drawn to thinking about the past and the lives her parents and their siblings had lived which no longer existed in any tangible way. The resulting body of work, her most ambitious to date in terms of scale and concept, sees her deftly probing the fabric of reality in an attempt to communicate with another world, one that is simultaneously very similar to but different from our own. Glimpsed through diaphanous net curtains and heavy mists it lies just out of reach, beyond our everyday experience, though it is made real through the materiality of the images Kiely has created. Belief in the existence of religious, mythological and metaphysical “otherworlds”, especially “underworlds” and “realms of the dead”, has been present in cultures throughout the world for centuries. In Greek and Celtic mythologies access to these other layers of existence is frequently facilitated by travelling along an axis, such as a river or a tree. While both feature frequently in Kiely’s work, rivers in particular hold a special significance for her. The River Nore, which flows past her home and studio on the outskirts of Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, is a familiar leitmotif in her paintings and it appears again in ‘A SECOND WORLD – any given day’ alongside the Shannon and the Suir, which passes through the Tipperary town where she grew up.

Her paintings are generally unpeopled, but one new picture of the quayside in Carrick- on-Suir depicts a figure silhouetted against the outline of a small boat. In one scene it neatly elucidates the relationship between her familiar riverine landscapes and her more recent transmigratory theme by prompting the viewer to wonder whether the figure is “real” (that of a fisherman making his way home after a leisurely day on the river) or allegorical (Charon transporting the souls of the dead across the Styx) and if the latter, what he might be doing in a provincial town in Ireland.

This kind of ambiguity and uncertainty pervades much of Bernadette Kiely’s work. At first glance many of her paintings read as straightforward landscape studies. But upon looking again the viewer may not be so sure about what it is they have seen. Concrete subjects/objects often evaporate, leaving only their shadows or reflections. In one large charcoal and chalk piece, dappled sunlight falls through the shadows of branches of trees onto the ground but the patches of sunlight may also be read as clouds in a troubled sky or a collection of Monet’s lily pads floating serenely on the surface of his pond at Giverny. In another, the outlines of houses and ditches are interspersed with blank white fields which could either be flooded or filled with snow. Dark branches in the foreground encroach upon the image from left and right, forcing the landscape to recede from the viewer and take on the appearance of a backdrop in a stage set. Remote and removed, the places depicted in Kiely’s paintings look very much like ordinary aspects of our own world but rendered strange and unknowable.

In her most recent work her palette has,
by and large, been reduced to a ghostly monochrome that enhances the possibility for dual readings and interpretations of her images. Layers and layers of charcoal and chalk have been applied, removed and applied again in a process of constant correction that imbues each mark made with a history. The process of making the accompanying works on paper echoes these layering effects by using a kind of drawing/tracing hybrid technique that allows her to make one handmade image out of another, pre-existing one. They are punctuated by more colourful canvases that revel in murky greens and mustardy yellows, and Kiely has also challenged herself to work with square canvases inherited from the painter Barrie Cooke, a previous inhabitant of her studio. These pieces serve to heighten the “otherness” of her paintings by altering the viewer’s field of vision. The square acts as a viewfinder, refining the viewer’s focus and transforming these chthonic paintings into access points – like the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – that present us with an opportunity to engage with other versions of reality and, possibly, other worlds beyond our own.

Kiely remembers her father asking her when she was a small child, “How do you know that you are real, that you are not 
the dream?” In this new body of work she attempts to answer this question while at the same time realising that she will never solve the riddle of reality. Instead she has brought together a collection of ideas around memory, loss, reflection, landscape, existence and the Otherworld that meet at 
a broad confluence to form a river that flows ever onward towards an unknown sea.

– Sabina MacMahon, 2006

Sabina Mac Mahon is an artist, curator and researcher with a BA in Fine Art (painting) and History of Art (First Class Hons.), National College of Art and Design, Dublin and an MA in Museum Studies (Distinction), University of Leicester, UK