An observer examining Nicola Nemec’s land-, sea- and sky-scapes for the first time is likely to be struck not only by their luminescence, but also by a sense of uncanny depths beneath their multi-layered surfaces.[i] It quickly becomes apparent this is work that demands re-viewing, since the often spare, mysterious forms and patterns depicted there invariably lead one to question one’s initial interpretations.
As W.B. Yeats rightly observed, a work of art is ‘no rootless flower’,[ii] but rather is something created through an intricate interplay of forces both external and internal to the artist, and imprinted by a time. To appreciate Nicola Nemec’s explorations of nature more fully, it is perhaps helpful to have some knowledge of the painter’s contexts and origins. Nemec was born in 1972, the worst year of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and grew up in a largely working-class area of north Belfast. The child of a Protestant mother and Catholic father, she developed from an early age an awareness of and sensitivity to the problematical nature of identity, and a hostility to the concept of fixed definitions. Given her exposure as a child to rigid sectarian divisions, constant evidence of shattered urban spaces and lives, it is hardly surprising that she became as she matured increasingly responsive to the pull and permanence of natural forms.
A major epiphany from her schooldays as a grammar-school pupil occurred on a visit to Belfast’s Ulster Museum. She describes how she was ‘astounded by the paintings’ she encountered there and, later, as a result, opted to take Art at Advanced Level. Alongside occasional trips to London to view contemporary exhibitions, her studies involved regular visits to the Northern Ireland Arts Council Gallery in Bedford Street, Belfast, where she attended exhibitions by local artists like Rita Duffy, Barbara Freeman, and T.P.Flanagan. For the young, would-be painter, the existence of such exceptional bodies of work from her native province was deeply verifying.[iii] Between the years 1990 and 2001 her degree-level work took her to Manchester and Leeds, and then for a while she lived in London. The experience of England quickened her feelings of difference and distinctness, but what proved most salutary for her artistic growth were her frequent return trips to Northern Ireland, since they intensified her attachment to originary and inherited landscapes which she soon found herself re-imagining.
A recurring feature of her landscape work is its liminality, as is apparent from many of the titles in this new exhibition. Places like Donegal,[iv] where she frequently spent summer holidays, and the North Antrim coast, where she now lives, have an enduring appeal, since there land merges with water, hills drop in on valleys, human constructs engage with natural elements. In and out of such locations the artist creates her own free, transient state, her canvases and the sights they depict becoming places where in-betweenness can be celebrated.
The new work presented here testifies to her continuing commitment to an expansive view of art, and to a desire that viewers should be allowed to bring their own narratives, interpretations and perspectives into play. In Boat Font, for example – as in its predecessor Beyond Reach – it is not clear whether the angle of perception lies above or below the forms depicted. To some eyes Boat Font might seem to present a number of vessels and their mooring lines, glimpsed from beneath the water; to others the images resemble strange river-plants caught in crepuscular light. The title itself compounds our uncertainty, since a boat is constructed to keep water out, while a font is designed to hold water in. In the equally enigmatic Beyond Reach,white, ghostly vegetation struggles to emerge from a grey-sepia wash, while above three indefinite shapes float or fly overhead.
One immediately detects in Boathouse I and Boathouse II basic outlines which resemble houses, yet where water and land begin and end is impossible to resolve. Behind what seems like a man-made structure in Boathouse I there are scratched patches of white. These might represent a meandering river or pockets of water; they seem to lie beneath a series of slightly curved lines to the upper right and left of the frame which look like gently rolling hills. The foreground is most resistant to interpretation. What is one to make of the grey-blue line contains areas of pale yellow and splashes of several shades of blue and white? Is it sand meeting sea? To establish what is what in Boathouse II is equally difficult. Does the thin gradually fading amber curve at the painting’s centre indicate a narrow strip of sand, or could it represent the upper rim of a hull? And is the boat toppling sideways in a turbulent sea?
Bog Channels, Bogland and Etched Earth give the allusion that one is on slightly surer ground. Dominating the centre and right-side foreground of Bog Channels is a wispy white-grey shape that could be clustered heads of bog-cotton. Glimpsed through this dense mass is a small concentrated area of white which might be light or water. Above this and to the left swirls of dark brown appear, overlaid with a mist – the bog itself presumably. Bogland is one of Nemec’s finest paintings to date, and owes something perhaps to T.P. Flanagan’s pioneering studies of this particularly Irish terrain. It creates the sensation that one is flying over a coastal landscape, in which ridges and striated patches of dense brown earth break through the cloud and spindrift. Towards the top of the canvas there is an illuminated area in which the sea seems to settle itself around slender fingers of land. While the repeated bars of brown in its middle ground echo those of Bogland, Etched Earth is another of those pieces which leave one unsure about the point of perception. Scratched and intersecting white lines at the bottom edge of the canvas suggest that we might again be surveying a landscape from above, yet we could equally be looking horizontally from a seaward direction. As so often in Nemec’s work, what seems substantial is engulfed in a fury of motion composed of wave, wind and cloud.
Evocative aerial perspectives feature also in Knocklayde, Armoy, whose very title alerts us to a break in the artist’s practice in that she rarely ever names locations. One of the major geographical features of north-east Antrim, since it towers 1695 feet above sea-level, Knocklayde clearly insisted on being addressed personally. In her renditions of the mountain in Knocklayde, Armoy and November Rain she has flattened out its curved dome-like shape. Whereas in the latter it resembles an overturned hull, tossed in a troubled sea, in the former it emanates calm. It is as if for Nemec, as for the great Romantic poets, ‘landscape is mindscape’,[v] a material and transcendental entity reflective of ‘contrary states of the human soul’.[vi]
Interestingly, close to the centre of Knocklayde, Armoy, directly below the outline mountain, is an unobtrusive black cross, of approximately the same size as that which appears in the satellite-like image of Coastal Map I. A mark of human presence within the landscape, it is clearly a significant primal shape or symbol to Nemec, since it recurs in Broken Waters, Coastal Map II and The Shipping Forecast where in each instance it is white and prominent,in Captive Distance and Drowned by Silence as a massy grey or black blur,and in Estuary Study, Harbour Shapes and Harbour, Shifting Tide in which it appears as thin lines etched respectively in grey, white and blue.
The significances encoded in these paintings are something, then, for each individual to discover and articulate. Yet Nemec’s art yields much more than the satisfactions that come from resolving an intricate puzzle. It seeks for itself a transformative effect, comparable to that which has occurred in the artist herself and in the processes of its making. There is within it a strain and straining-after that one finds in the lyric writing of many of the North of Ireland’s foremost nature poets, Kavanagh, Heaney and Longley, but voiced equally in their predecessors, the British Romantics, and later literary giants such as Hardy, Lawrence and Hughes. Important currents within Nemec’s imaginings, I suspect, are a hope for a ‘great sea-change’[vii] in human perception, and a trust in the cultural and moral power of the sublime in nature and in art. Hers is a vision close in affinity to Jonathan Bate’s when he writes:
If the planet is to be saved, we…will have to change our ways; before we can change our ways we will have to change our minds. To change our minds, we need new ways of conceptualising the world. The non-human must be seen as something other than…the raw material for production. It must be viewed as Romanticism viewed it, with wonder and reverence.[viii]
At the core of Seamus Heaney’s early poem, ‘The Peninsula’, lies an injunction which could equally apply to those attending this exhibition. He urges his audience to commit to memory what they have seen, ‘The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log’, ‘That rock where breakers shredded into rags’, ‘Islands riding themselves out into the fog’, ‘Water and ground in their extremity’.[ix]
Professor of English Literature, University of Central Lancashire. Author of seamus Heaney: The making of the Poet, (co-ed) Postcolonial Literatures, (ed) The Hurt World:Short Stories of the Troubles, Northern Irish Literature 1956-2006, (co-ed) Irish Literature Since 1990: Diverse Voices.
[i] Her painting is multi-layered both figuratively and literally. Many of her images incorporate ur-versions beneath the final surface, such as an aptly entitled earlier work, ‘The Secret Beneath’, which contains six.
[ii] W.B.Yeats, draft of a lecture, ‘Friends of My Youth’, 9 March 1910, cited in Roy Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, vii: ‘Above all it is necessary that the lyric poet’s life should be known that we should understand that his poetry is no rootless flower but the speech of a man’.
[iv] Culturally and politically, Donegal embodies the liminal. A border county, it was historically part of Ulster, yet when partition was instituted in 1922, it was excluded from the province of Northern Ireland because it contained a Catholic majority.
[v] A phrase coined by Seamus Heaney to emphasise the psychological dimension of Wordsworth’s art, in a BBC documentary from 1974, William Wordsworth Lived Here.
[vi] William Blake used this as the subtitle to Songs of Innocence and Experience, which he published together in 1794.
[vii] Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy. Lodon: Faber, 1990, p.77.
[viii] Jonathan Bate, ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’. Times Higher Educational Supplement, 17 September 2009, pp.39-41.
[ix] Seamus Heaney, ‘The Peninsula’, from Door into the Dark. London: Faber, 1969, p.21.