Memory Space

“The two most striking features of the site are the complex of barracks buildings and the parkland landscape”

(Environmental Impact Statement)

The development of this largely untouched landscape impelled me to produce the paintings, drawings and lithographs for my exhibition, Memory Space. Entry to the landscape initially, appeared difficult. It was protected behind a high limestone wall, which seemed to enhance the isolation of the barracks from the incursions of the sprawling village of Ballincollig, at the edge of Cork city. Above the wall could be seen limestone and redbrick buildings, a legacy of British occupation and away towards the western end, a formal gathering of mature trees, some of which would have been planted at the beginning of the 19th century when the cavalry barracks was completed and garrisoned.

When I finally gained entry with the permission of the new owners and developers, O’Flynn Construction, my aim was to record visually some aspect of, what was, in effect a time capsule. Since the closure of the barracks in the 1990s there had been little human impact on the ecology of the site. Even now in the 21st century, the trees seemed to exist in a landscape unsullied by time, caught in an Eden like state, which until now had remained separate from the acceleration of development.

My sketchbook journey began in mid summer, when the trees still had their full canopy of leaves; sheep grazed the pasture doing their best to keep at bay an invasive pioneer species of thistle, ragwort and bramble. Buildings lay uninhabited, in semi-dereliction, lost in an interval of redundant time, shifting gear from well maintained military bustle to weather beaten neglect. Billets destined for demolition were in a state of peeling dilapidation. Shafts of dust filled light, created drama in worn out spaces, interrupting the quiet resolve of rooms, held within the fierce embrace of memory.

The journey finished in early winter when the first ravages of man made change and transformation had begun. A new era had dawned.

In this exhibition Angie Shanahan explores a terrain which had been literally on her horizon for decades. During the years when she had an oriel room studio in Ballincollig, the tall trees surrounding this site were ever present on the distant view from her studio window. When it became known that that particular piece of land was to be developed, she decided to embark on a personal project of documenting and recording a place which was on the cusp of transformation.

Geographic/environmental transformations can perhaps lead to personal and artistic ones. These new works see the artist working on a larger scale and also treating landscape imagery and tall trees in an individual way, almost reminiscent of 17/18th century classical landscape. These graceful distant views are most impressive and seem a new departure in her work. There are wonderful skies here and these trees have been subconsciously inspirational for Angie in many previous paintings, elements of them have emerged as backgrounds even in portraits. Happily many of these trees remain visible in the new development of this land. Other paintings in this series, perhaps more characteristically for the artist, closely focus on building details -a door, particulars of a space, how things have been for a long time in an abandoned site.

In one of the paintings, The Drying Fields, the steep angle up from a grassy foreground to tall buildings, creates a sense of the viewer being far below, almost lying down and looking back up. This is reminiscent in some ways of Andrew Wyeth’s wonderful painting Christina’s World. It’s a compositional approach which has inherent drama because although these paintings are unpeopled, there is the feeling of presence. (Who is the viewer, us or the artist?) Pulled into a different world, we are compelled to enter the mystery of this private place. One could argue that realism is at its best when there is a particular mood or quizzical theme/story to be evoked. Hopper and Wyeth, the great American realist painters, were masters of creating mood and inquisitiveness. In terms of modern Irish realists, in recent years Martin Gale has also created fascinating imagery of Ireland in its latest cycle of development. In these paintings Angie Shanahan creates a narrative and mood, evoking the story and previous occupation of this land – deliberately without using a single figure. The artist combines exceptional skill with personal experience and observation to make a series of paintings which both record and pay homage to a landscape which has formed her own artistic aesthetic.

Nuala Fenton