Niamh Flanagan: thin places of escape and return
This body of work features colour etchings, monoprint and collage by Master Printmaker Niamh Flanagan, and is the first major solo exhibition of her work since An Elsewhere Place in 2012. The motif of the house or dwelling space is central to Flanagan’s work, calling into question the notion of the house as a formative psychological structure, one that inhabits our dreams and our inner spaces, while also providing a physical barrier between the inside world and the outside. At times playful, and at others foreboding, Flanagan’s plates bring to life inner worlds and forgotten realms where moons become galaxies or cosmic eyes or tiny pebbles in the sky.
This work draws its inspiration from iconic dwellings and structures in folklore and fairytale, exploring how these tales, and the houses in them, can shape our thoughts, our dreams and our memories. Irish and European texts provided an inspiration for many of the works in the exhibition, as were many of the great artists who have engaged with the subject matter before her – from Harry Clarke to Paula Rego, from David Hockney to Shaun Tan. These stories are dark and deep. They are the stories we are told when we are tucked up safe in our beds; but they tell us about danger and evil, many of these structures are traps or prisons, things are not always as they seem. These prints depict dark and fractal towers, glassy sharp mountains, and towering beanstalks, all familiar, and yet strange. We have returned to the world of our childhood, but something is different in this desolate oneiric universe. Something has changed. But maybe it is we who have changed in returning, like Oisín on his ill-fated trip from Tír na nÓg. Through these subtle explorations and juxtapositions, Flanagan’s work seems to be gently nudging us towards another space, maybe a thin place, where magic can happen, where the ground can shift in an instant, where we are the dreamers of dreams.
Flanagan’s practice is concerned with utopias and otherworlds, the need for escape, reverie and daydreaming. She cites Bachelard’s Poetics of Space as an influence, positing the house as ‘a space for dreaming’. Some of the works in the series move beyond fairytale and representations, featuring more pared back and isolated imagery, as in Refuge I: unfolding and Refuge II: tower. Here some of the structures are breaking away, unfolding, floating in space, apart from their worlds, creating sites of dreaming which further explore ideas of safety and containment, volatility and confinement.
In recent years Flanagan has been working in collage-etching alongside her etching process. She creates one-off original pieces using this technique where she combines elements of monoprint with collage, using off-cuts of elements from her etchings, combining and juxtaposing them to create new narratives and compositions. These works explore further how stories can change and evolve through different interpretations and translations, through different times and eras. The etchings in these unique pieces become a printed universe – a sort of vernacular from which Flanagan creates her own visual language, changing and evolving with each iteration of the narrative, with each re-telling of the tale. These repeated motifs can be seen as a metaphor for the telling and the re-telling, the construction and the re-construction of narratives, re-imagining these imagined worlds once more. The resulting work creates something of a dream-like universe, in which elements from a print can appear and re-appear in different settings, creating new meaning and contexts through these works.