Bridget Ryan brings a fresh and revealing eye to the question of ‘Connemara light’. It was this which most famously drew Paul Henry west, and many others, including Gerry Dillon, followed.
But Ryan is no urban blow-in. One of nine children, she was born and raised in Cornamona on the northern shores of Lough Corrib and just inside Connemara. Her inspiration is partly drawn from memories, as in her twilight views, which recall evenings when she went out lantern in hand to assist her father with calving.
Geographically, her focus is a narrow one. Her landscapes all feature the area around the ancestral house. It is rough but otherwise ostensibly undramatic ground. Horizons are flat and the mountains and lakes so beloved of tourists are absent.
The vistas are almost uniform in another respect, with two thirds of the canvas devoted to the land and one third to sky. We are left with the smaller distinctions between farmed land, abandoned fields, and wholly uncultivated ground. It is amazing what Ryan makes of such differences.
Deserted cottages, houses, and outbuildings are centre stage in all her paintings. As she has said, ‘I have always been intrigued by the many and varied deserted houses in this part of Ireland.’ For her ‘they are full of beauty, but always with a sense of desolation about them’.
Famine, the hardships of the smallholder, and emigration are implicit, though the more recent desertion of old houses for modern bungalows is not allowed to interfere with the underlying theme. We don’t in fact examine her abandoned buildings closely. Seen mainly in twos or threes, they are almost always on or near the skyline, and thus in the middle or far distance with little detail or colour showing.
There may be an element of artistic licence here: Mayo TD Éamon Ó Cuív, who did the honours at the opening at this exhibition in the Gerard Dillon Gallery, Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on Belfast’s Fall Road, emphasised how the people of the area tended to build their homes up boreens or sheltered by the lie of the land. Ryan’s houses, however, appear to be exposed to the westerly blast.
This exhibition is not then an architectural essay on rural decay, and maybe all the better for that. Perhaps Ryan’s houses serve the same function that cottages do in Paul Henry’s paintings – as a focus of attention so that we can better appreciate the surroundings. One can certainly appreciate that her rough ground is intimately connected with the abandonment of homes.
For all its barrenness she imparts the terrain with an extraordinary visual richness. She offers an almost infinite variety of patterns: there are fields here as patchwork quilt, portrayed with strong diagonal field boundaries, or alternatively with vertical and horizontal boundaries, and there is land where the old boundaries crumble in mist or haze.
Working primarily in oils, she uses a variety of other materials and techniques to great advantage. She paints alternatively on paper, board, and linen, and employs collage and mixed media, and latterly has developed the spilling, mopping, and scraping of paint.
All give a tangible almost physical feel to the work. Alternatively, and in one of her twilight views, the use of absolutely flat and uniform colour seems entirely right.
‘Connemara light’ may be a well worn cliché both of tourist literature and the history of landscape painting in the area, but Ryan herself extols it, and succeeds in bringing a fresh vibrancy to it. There is both a subtlety and an intensity to her palette. Every imaginable shade of blue, green, or yellow is brought into play as we follow the day from dawn to dusk and the seasons from spring through to autumn.
The titles of her paintings often reflect these chronologies as in ‘Daybreak’, ‘Early Morning’ ‘End of the Day’ ‘Twilight’ and ‘Nightfall’ or ‘Now Comes Spring’, ‘August’, ‘Summertime’ and ‘Towards Autumn’. The point is that each of these seasons or moments produces wholly different effects.
In nearly all of them she achieves a luminous veracity, though Connemara skies are hardly usually so cloudless – there are no huge banks of cumulous clouds here. The often single colour she uses, as in the palest of blue for a dawn sky, or dark blues and mauves for twilights, serves, however, to increase the intensity with which we see the terrain below.
Ryan works fast. If you want to capture fleeting moments of light that is what you have to do. Once upon a time she may have set about constructing landscapes from her farm house in a somewhat formulaic way, but her instinctive feel for colour and texture has broken through with an instinctive flair.
She has been widely exhibited elsewhere, and the decorative nature of all these paintings surely enhances their commercial appeal, though without detracting from their integrity in any way. They are all on sale at prices ranging from £120 to £700. This exhibition runs until July 5.