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Memory Needs a Landscape

The relationship between rural Irish communities and the land is both pragmatic and poetic, played out through intimacy with its anatomy: fields, boundaries, hedgerows, rights of way and historical provenance. Bernadette Kiely’s approach to landscape painting mines these psychological and physiological relationships as a site of labour, productivity, ownership and heritage. Traditional landscape painting tends to depict scenic views at the beginning or the end of the day, when people are absent and it is transformed into a form of poetry. For Kiely, daily labour provides inspiration in paintings that chronicle the cycle of farming life. In her recent exhibition, ‘Memory Needs a Landscape’, her subject is challenged by the most uncompromising grey shroud of a damp winter, which has encouraged an expansion in her stylistic range evident in the inclusion of more abstracted and conceptually-based monotypes within her folkish and mystical paintings.

The exhibition breaks with the solid painterly compositions that signified Kiely’s past work as she steps into unknown territories of flattened perspectives, washed surfaces and diminishing layers of thin paint. The transition is tentative and not yet resolved, but its inherent risk bears out through the artist’s skill and consistency across the exhibition. In each work, the original sketch remains evident as it untidily structures the painted forms between lines of smudged charcoal, graphite and paint. The effect is raw, reflecting a theme of coming to terms with change and adapting to an altered landscape, both in life and in art. Silence, River Nore documents the effects of unrelenting rainfall obliterating the horizon of the riverbank. In No Fun Today, a flooded playground sits at the literal and metaphorical edge of town and appears to be silently drifting downriver. It Could Be Graiguenamanagh I brings old fashioned Irish humour to temper frustration at increasingly mercurial weather patterns. In The Past is Present, it’s the Future Too, a farm gate and tarpaulin-covered mound are barely visible through mist and smoke, while the shadow of a farm worker stands by. It is neither poetic nor beautiful, but, without needing to be literal, it captures the damp monotony of an Irish winter.

A series of monotypes trace old ordnance maps with a convincing archival quality that implicates civil administration in the complex relationship between people and the land. Ordnance maps demarcate parishes, townlands and counties, and continue to have relevance in organising various aspects of social, cultural and civil life for rural communities. The King’s River (and Church), Old Map Image I and II track a tributary of the Nore that once had seven working mills dotted along its banks. Shadow Trees I, Flooded Land II and V, and Ground, County Home denote an artform that sits somewhere between cartography and drawing, pulling the viewer into an intimate investigation of detailed marks. Though brittle and threadbare, they convey the importance of title deeds and rights to land.

Rising Water is the most surprising work, made from a deliberately naïve perspective in both an emotional and a graphic sense. Similar in function to an ordnance map, this work reflects the significance of recording geographic phenomenon for civic purposes. Embedded in the composition is key visual information outlining the vulnerability of the area to rising waters, marked out in the waterline on higher ground – knowledge that will be usefully referenced for drainage solutions in the future. Contrasting with this pictorial diagram, in Rising Waters, River Nore, Kiely has worked up an image of a flooded field with striking lucidity using only a minimal application of charcoal, white chalk and water. These works underpin the metaphysical aspect of Kiely’s approach to landscape painting and her implicit acknowledgement of the land as a precious and fragile resource.

More poetic and allegorical are several paintings that focus on the spaces between tracts of working land: the boundaries of farms, the banks of rivers and, in one painting, a distant image of the mythically-significant Sliabh na mBan. Agricultural superstition in Ireland is extant where farmers sprinkle holy water along the edges and corners of fields to prevent piseogs from ruining their crops and livestock. The co-existence of modern farming with these practices highlights the elemental and sometimes contradictory nature of how farming communities think and feel about the land. Kiely paints The Garden I, Fading Landscape and Fading Memories in soft-focus, with feathery trees and undergrowth blurred by a mystical haze. When compared to weightier paintings such as Welcome to Claregalway II, the world they depict gradually materialises, just as the otherworlds of Túatha de Dannan and Tir Na nÓg emerge in Irish mythology. Kiely has pushed her painting to a place that digs deep, trying to distinguish the intangible from the tangible. In doing so she creates a kind of visual doublethink in which collective memory, folklore and ritual are at odds with twenty-first-century farming, climate change and civil bureaucracy.

– Carissa Farrell is a writer and curator based in Dublin.