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Catalogue Text – Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh, ‘Cnuasach: Deep Mapping’, Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, September 2021.

September 23, 2021

Cnuasach: Deep Mapping

Over decades, the artist embarks on faithful departures from one painting in search of the next, never derailed by looming interpretations but content with deeper truths that overwrite such fractal commentary. Bodies of work accumulate as clusters, yet definitive meaning is shrouded and encoded – undecipherable, even to her.

Certainly, these painted structures are rooted in the Irish landscape; however, they also inhabit a more imaginary and timeless terrain. Embedded archaeological, linguistic and intuitive elements are held in creative confluence, but are never fully disclosed. Through a process of deep mapping, we experience brief epiphanies of place.

Landscape is a material surface that is sequentially etched and reshaped. One scheme of representation is imprinted upon another, each iteration obscuring what came before. From the outer edges, painted layers are scraped, reworked or subject to erasure. Perspective is tilted, lines overlap, and residual forms recede like apparitions.

Some constructions speak of sedimentary rock formations; others perch on thin blue-grey horizontal bands, reminiscent of clay daub soil. There are glimpses of vernacular architecture, human habitation and temporary monuments, built through communal labour. Former power structures can be traced within the brooding shadows of chimney stacks, border huts, or the outlying barbicans of some fortified town.

Curved black mounds are recurring motifs, perceived as plumes of smoke or the fleeting silhouettes of trees, observed from a passing train.

Rising upwards, stars shimmer in a bitumen void, as electrical currents to illuminate Wittgenstein’s last pool of darkness. I visualise ornate temples and mountaintop shrines, the sites of pilgrimage and monastic retreat. Concealed below are subterranean vaults and ancient passageways – half-dimensions inhabited by the spirits of warriors, whose mortal bodies are entombed as stardust within these dark hills.

Paint is applied in rectangular slabs, like shuttered concrete. Some vistas are emulsified with greyscale bands, suggesting seascapes obscured by fog. Blazing saffron skies prophesise ecological collapse; yet they also provoke nostalgia for the golden haze of distant summers, memorialised within family albums.

Several compositions echo the thick borders of Polaroid or the cinematic frames of moving image. They recall a pivotal moment in child development, when young drawers learn to situate their subjects, sprouting directly from the ground. A vessel of containment and support, canvas is a flexible material turned rigid and square – a framing device designating not just the contemporary pictorial arena, but the vast historical trajectory of Western painting.

The artist gathers a vocabulary akin to visual poetry, which draws inspiration from the immeasurable beauty and profound strangeness of the Irish language. This cnuasach (or gleaning) summons landscapes that predate analogue photography – a time when physical and conceptual transformations of the land were documented only through the kindred disciplines of painting and cartography.

Joanne Laws is an art writer and editor based in Leitrim.

[Featured Image: Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Teorainn no.9, 2019]

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