Elizabeth Magill's new work, up until October 15th at Miles McEnery Gallery, 511 West 22nd Street, NYC, is both haunted and enchanted. The foregrounds are usually the dark silhouette of winter trees against a vivid colour wash. But in these new paintings the trees are screen printed rather than painted. Subtle slips along the outline move from light into dark. There are half shifts into negative. It can seem like torchlight through the woods or the off register feel of the night vision setting on a GoPro camera mounted on a drone.
This dislocated quality reminds me that despite the subject matter these are not Romantic paintings. Bare trees could come from an Atkinson Grimshaw work, and the hazy sky, from a Caspar David Friedrich. But pictorially they do not necessarily follow figurative rules, they're always shadowing abstraction. And under the surface is a Modernist unease.
"The Troubles" haunts this work. As a child growing up in Country Antrim in the '70s she couldn’t have avoided the bombings and the murders. Local people still don't talk about it. You don't know who you might be talking to. Magill's approach is to show her colors at dusk in an ambiguous way.
An example of a painting that both celebrates the Irish countryside and hints at some terrible past is "Duggans Bay" from 2022. It shows an opening into an estuary glowing in the deep red of an autumnal early evening. The banks are screenprinted onto the red ground. It's a subtle image with a powerful mood. It's as if something happened here.
It's like the location of an irish murder ballad.
"Mama went to the Boyne water,
That is so wide and deep,
Saying, 'Little Sir William if you are here, Oh, pity your Mother's weep,'
"Little Sir William" Traditional
It's a Neo Film noir still, in 1970s colours, like a Polaroid that you found in a draw. There are raw sienna hand painted strokes that are a little too corporeal somehow.
She uses the camera to convey natural order, the way things grow. The painted branch as opposed to the reproduction is a record of a tree's life. The relationship of one branch to another and to the trunk. They have endured the extreme temperature changes of the seasons on the Antrim coastline.
In "Flag-Iris" 2022 there's a group of figures and the faint image of a car. It's not a new car and those aren't new haircuts, maybe they're trying to cross a check point or carry something over the border. It's never specific. This is not political or historical work. Around the figures are chalk outlines that can represent changing decisions or some past tragedy.
Elizabeth Magill's paintings are immanent, no devices this complex artist ever uses, conceptually or formally gets in the way of the internal workings of the painting. They operate at a hub where surface paint, gesture and photographic imprint meet. It's choreography and improvisation and color, all the things that color can say and the emotional temperature they take. She paints as if nothing beyond the truth of the image exists. She denies narrative because it might be misunderstood, it could be too dangerous. And if there is something beyond it, far better to trust to ambiguity and veil everything in shadows and inference.
The paintings are flattened by pop techniques and then re deepened by more traditional landscape painting ones. She uses motifs that are meant to evoke spiritual longing and at the same time compares them to artificial light.
She leaves only partially represented people, the slightest clouds or sea mist. A whisper of human developments like distant lights beyond the subject. Her paintings are always beautiful andthe Irish landscape and the light are unequivocal and true but there are other truths not so beautiful. Human activities that are best communicated in secrecy.