A Contemporary Sublime / Reviewed by Dorothy Hunter / 08.01.13
Throughout art history the sublime has often been represented and examined through monumental scenes. Painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and J M W Turner explored the visceral despair we feel before scenes of stormy seas and barren peaks, portraying the engulfing lifelessness of inhospitable terrain.
In A Contemporary Sublime Mary McIntyre focuses upon a modern depiction of the unsettling beauty in hostile nature. In this retrospective of her work, she draws from an evolving definition and expression of the sublime, and in so doing, explores a greater connection between photography and painting.
In contrast to Turner and Friedrich’s spectacular scenes, McIntyre’s sublime is quieter, composed of settings that seem familiar but uncannily so. Influenced by the gently unsettling and symbolic landscapes of Ruisdeal and Corot, the artist uses rural and suburban areas of Northern Ireland as her source. McIntyre’s images, however, have no signifier of area or country. The scenes shown are not universal, yet are without explicit context, and so remain pictorial instead of referential.
Veil XV depicts a complex and immediate marshland scene, overgrown with leafless trees in a misty, waterlogged setting. Whilst the limited neutral palette and colour fields of mist recall traditional oil painting, the composition breaks tradition by having no prevalent focal point, and loosely frames an opening to the depth of the overgrowth. With such a busy scene and wide depth of field, there is no distinct foreground or background. The image is more like a setting for another scene that has overgrown.
The titles of McIntyre’s work often make reference to veils or screens, ambiguous as to whether they reference the recurring and obscuring trees and mist, or the imaging processes that have for centuries represented, drawn symbols from, and venerated nature. Alongside the mounts that reference paintings and colour plates of books, McIntyre references a deeper painting history in compositions that mirror influential works. With paintings of Corot, Ruisdeal and Lowry in an adjacent room, images such as Flooded Tree (After Jean Baptiste Camille Corot) take on a deeper dialogue of placement and relevance in time, both in terms of its own lifespan and a larger art history.
Barren branches, mist, pale skies and stagnant water make many of the works shown slightly gothic in aesthetic, jarring with the life it sits in contrast to. Dead Pool shows the combination of supported and unsupported life in landscape on a clear day, the yellow of dead leaves in the water contrasting with the yellow of growth. Meanwhile the Hirstian-titled The Mournful Inevitability of Lush Summer Greenery as it Fades with the Onset of Winter shows a tree-skimmed pool covered in green weed, draining the water body of life through eutrophication. These bright colours seem garish in contrast to the sobriety of a struggling landscape and otherwise sombre palette.
Encompassing these tensions of life and death is a dialogue of how man and nature interact in the environment. Over, and On and Up II contrasts the familiar motif of bare trees, overgrown with ivy, with the limits of a backyard. As pigeons roost in coops within the fence, small strands of ivy climb the metal boundaries. In some images fences sit just within the boundaries of the frame, whilst in others buildings fade into the perspective, showing an unknown amount of human interaction in the uncultivated scenes. Whilst some could be remains, others could be the beginning of a new built environment and more accessible and edited public space. The Mound typifies this, showing freshly turned and rocky earth with a visible and concealing atmosphere.
The quiet nature of what McIntyre depicts sits in contrast to the many interfaces it contains. Like with the paintings that influence McIntyre’s work, we as viewers are separated from what is there by camera, glass, and concealing bodies. In re-negotiating the sublime we can find its modern-day definition and effect, and in this, respond to its fluctuating and ongoing presence.
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