Critique | Nano Reid, ‘Adamantine’

Highlanes Gallery; 15 October 2021 – 19 February 2022

Nano Reid, ‘Adamantine’, installation view; image courtesy of the Reid Estate and the Highlanes Gallery. Nano Reid, ‘Adamantine’, installation view; image courtesy of the Reid Estate and the Highlanes Gallery.

The retrospective of Drogheda native, Nano Reid (1900-1981), is not just an exhibition; it is a legacy. ‘Adamantine’, which fills the two floors of the Highlanes Gallery building, presents a lifetime of work, displaying the progression of her distinctive painting style and comprising a sensory balm that is full of colour, gesture, mysticism, and organic richness. 

The different gallery spaces function as a dispersed narrative, with each room offering vignettes of the artist’s life, centred on the massive timeline placed on the altar of the lower gallery. With paintings ranging from her early realistic portraits to gestural abstractions, this exhibition presents an artist who was in dialogue with twentieth-century Modernism, while cultivating a unique style that engages with Irish life, landscapes, people, history, and mythologies in provocative ways. 

Her depictions of Drogheda town life present layered perspectives, with many images conveying outward viewpoints, such as from a window looking down into the streets like a skewed bird’s-eye view, or looking in, as in her painting, The Bottling Store. This painting in particular compresses perspective, with the depicted room presented as a formal mix of squares, lines and triangles, melding into a layered ambiance. The cluttered sensations of the eponymous bottling room contrast with the door to the left of the image, the most distinctive feature being a set of keys hanging from the lock. These qualities exude a sense of distance, implying a position of being elsewhere while looking in – a characteristic that correlates to the challenges she faced in her lifetime as a woman painter in an art world rife with gender inequality.

While the upper galleries presented Reid’s town scenes and portraits, the tone and qualities of the work shifts in the lower galleries. These paintings exude a saturation of organic matter, with an emphasis on the Irish landscape. Images take on a more abstracted quality, as the bright hues of the street scenes are swapped for rich browns, greens, and other earthy tones, through which Reid expresses her interests in ancient Ireland and its mysticism. 

Rural scenes, such as A Remote Corner and Old Stables, convey snippets of farm life, where the presence of figures including horses and humans, mingle with the background, highlighting their entanglement with the landscape. Gestural swirls meld perspective differences into an affective impression of the land. Early in Summer is a medley of browns and greens with light blues, not so much presenting an image of seasonal shift but offering a sensory play that captures the distinct characteristics of that time of year, so challenging to put into words. 

Thick brush strokes contrast with scratches into the paint, carrying traces of her process through its texture. The fullness of this painting is starkly contrasted by the monotype, simply titled Landscape, situated next to it, which carries only minimal traces and ghostly illusions on the paper’s surface. Such juxtapositions can be found throughout the exhibition, highlighting the range of Reid’s techniques.

Just as the paintings collapse spatial distinction, time pools in some works, as Reid paints what she perceived in the present, enriched by drawing on ancient Irish history. At the same time, there is a stretching into the future as the images continue to resonate with our current moment. For instance, the oil painting The Wren, conveys figures immersed in a medley of reds, blacks, and blues. Several figures emerge from the luscious background, reduced to a series of lines, with one moving towards another across the image plane. 

The painting’s colours and organic entanglement evokes Amanda Coogan’s recent body of work, ‘They Come Then, The Birds’, presented at Rua Red as part of the Magdalene series, inspired by the Wrens of Curragh. This group of outcast women lived a makeshift communal existence, situated near a military camp at the Curragh in County Kildare. Comprised of live and performance-to-camera, installation, sound, and drawings, ‘They Come Then, the Birds’ involves a multisensory overload of performing women, enmeshed in their landscape and cloaked in rich red layered garments that mingle with the yellows and greens of the furze bushes. Despite the differing times and media of these works, both spill over their frames through affective super-saturation. 

EL Putnam is an artist and writer based in County Westmeath.