Critique | Niamh O’Malley, ‘Gather’

The Model, Sligo; 3 February – 15 April 2023

Niamh O’Malley, ‘Gather’, Installation view, The Model; photograph by Aisling McCoy, courtesy of the artist, The Model, and Ireland at Venice 2022. Niamh O’Malley, ‘Gather’, Installation view, The Model; photograph by Aisling McCoy, courtesy of the artist, The Model, and Ireland at Venice 2022.

A roving shadow appears; a haze of mist over the Garavogue River casts faint ripples through the window grille pattern, thrown up on the gallery wall at a slant. Rain-mottled windowpanes layer texture over the grain of the wooden floor and the buffed limestone of Drain (2022). A glint of sunlight picks out the yellow in Shelf (2022) and there’s a glow about it. Niamh O’Malley’s, ‘Gather’ at The Model in Sligo, includes sculptural works first presented at the Irish Pavilion for the Venice Biennale last year. Her dedication to site specificity and references to the local environment anchor the exhibition in both Venice and the west of Ireland. 

By shaping raw materials often hewn from the land, and in detailing microclimatic shifts, O’Malley instigates a fresh dialogue on what it means to be connected to a landscape. The correlation and ephemeral biotic relationship between nature and culture finds expression in a number of the works. Many of her sculptures appear as descriptors for features in the landscape: a promontory, the rock spine of a mountain pass, flagstone floors, drystone walls, dense aged wood smoothed and polished. Steel, limestone, wood, and glass are utilised to consider brackish rivers and bog oak, briar thickets, gnarled branches, quarries, kelp and marram grass, ecological and archaeological curios, mounds and forts. 

To orientate us, O’Malley introduces a crow. In ‘Gather’, the crow might act as a guide, encouraging us to consider alternative value systems in our surroundings. We encounter the bird through the phone-recorded video, Hooded Crow (2022), where it drinks water from a garden pond, pausing intermittently to take in its surroundings. When we understand that our human-centric pivot blinkers us, we can make space for other readings of our environment. O’Malley often builds such devices into her exhibitions, to shift our perspective and consider a reordering of materiality and form through abstraction. The mark, transposed onto the slope of the mountain from the camera lens in Nephin (2014), also functions in this way, orientating us as we circle the peak, offering a different vantage point.  

The artist collaborates with several different craftspeople on the fabrication of these objects, moving through various possibilities, while celebrating a particularly exceptional piece of stone. Surface finishes and treatments emphasise its specificity. Limestone for example, which appears throughout the exhibition, has been quarried and worked in many parts of Ireland since prehistoric times, having been used in the Neolithic burial chambers found on many parts of the island. Covers (2022) is a composition of limestone set into beech veneered MDF; it looks a bit like an aerial view of a passage tomb but more directly references marble storm drain covers from the municipal drainage system in Venice. This assonance draws the two disparate terrains into dialogue with one another – a strategy of comparison which deepens our awareness of nuance.  

Some of the assemblages in ‘Gather’ incorporate other building materials like textured glass. The use of the ubiquitous Everglade pattern in Corner (hold) might remind us of windowpanes or door panels in the bungalows of rural Ireland. The leaf pattern in the glass, emulating the thick summer foliage outside, creates a perceptual mise en abyme. This familiar motif also elicits a sense of nostalgia, a collective reminiscence on the materiality of the Bungalow Bliss era, after the widely disseminated design changed the face of the Irish countryside forever. 

Similarly, the steel in Shelf (2022) recollects corrugated roofs of sheds and barns, while the architecture of The Model also plays a part. Initially purpose-built as a school in 1862 and refurbished in 2001 for use as a museum, its structural idiosyncrasies converse with this series of formal sculptures and accompanying video. A thick, cumulous cloud yields to the insistence of light as rays crack through and cast contours onto the floor from Holds (2022). Titles of individual artworks suggests a nonverbal, dissociative, and decentred way of describing intensely quotidian natural objects and forms. Much of O’Malley’s work has a honed palette which emphasises the play of light and prioritises material tactility. 

Throughout the exhibition, O’Malley pays homage to the natural landmarks, vernacular architecture, and geological characteristics of rural Ireland. The work in ‘Gather’ is often descriptive of such features in the landscape – expansive skies over jagged mountain tops, cliff faces in profile, refractions, and pools of light on the sea – though her depictions have been meticulously pared back in search of quintessence. 

The work incorporates contradictions that further activate the artist’s treatise, including rigid and fluid, fragile and robust, wild and cultivated. Such dichotomies speak of the romanticisation of the west of Ireland, misconceptions of modernity, and the often-mawkish descriptors that dominate its expression in art. Always on the lookout for catalysts and anomalies that offer new perspectives on hackneyed tropes, O’Malley asks how the idyllic west of Ireland landscape can be represented in contemporary art, and in so doing, she deciphers fresh narratives in the descriptions of place. 

Ingrid Lyons lives and works in Donegal. She writes about contemporary art and is currently developing a number of works of fiction and creative non-fiction. 

The Irish Tour of Ireland at Venice 2022 presented iterations of ‘Gather’ in The Model and TBG+S (2 March – 30 April). A discursive event was hosted in the Linenhall on 11 March, featuring readings by Eimear McBride and Brian Dillon (who wrote for the publication), a conversation with Niamh O’Malley and the Curatorial Team (Clíodhna Shaffrey and Michael Hill) and screenings of films by Jenny Brady and Ros Kavanagh.