In this new series of works, Gillian Lawler explores culturally-ingrained conceptions of a futuristic ‘sublime’. She references Edmund Burke’s use of the word ‘sublime’ in an art-historical context, where a work elicits the strongest of emotional responses in the viewer. Burke wrote that ‘whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime’. Burke had in mind the epic battle scenes popular in 18th Century history painting and JMW Turner’s stirring depictions of the violent power of the sea.
Lawler extrapolates this interpretation of the sublime into a vision of the future that is daunting and formidable. In doing so, she presents her own unreliable recollections of futuristic, free-floating, anthropomorphic habitats that recur in popular culture. The use of abandoned places as backdrops, empty and laid bare, creates a vista which allows her to imagine an alternative timeline or dimension and a perspective of nature, reconstructed as a series of indefinite structures: systems in-flux, uncertain and reduced to conceptual visions of space, time, and existence.
Lawler’s previous exhibitions at the gallery were inspired by her visit to Centralia, an abandoned mining town in Pennsylvania. The work obliquely documented its despoiled post-industrial landscape and the forced relocation of its inhabitants to a nearby borough. Sinkholes, smouldering ventilation systems, remnants of abandoned homes, overgrown streets and barren inaccessible areas became re-imagined elements within the work.
Her new work explores related ideas which surfaced while negotiating the grief she experienced upon the death of her mother in 2017. She re-visits her use of platforms and scaffolds and incorporates new forms based on paper airplanes, diving boards and the bones of architectural structures. These forms are at times grounded, moving, suspended, tethered, hovering, unfolding and at other times standing apart from the surrounding landscape. They capture an ephemeral quality, a fleeting moment which bears witness to a momentary leap of faith. They invoke their ghostly inhabitants and act as sentinels, observing at a distance, travelling perhaps to another place, appearing conspicuous at times or camouflaged by elaborate patterning, adding a surreal, dreamlike sense of discomfort, where what appears to have been planned according to a perspectival logic is withheld and subverted. At times the canvas is split into two territories with a boundary line providing a means of transition and transformation. For the artist, these territories resonate with the passing of her mother.
The former head of collections at IMMA, Catherine Marshall, has written of Lawler's work that it is pervaded by unease. "It hangs like microscopic atoms of pollution in the air, lingers around multiple 'blind' windows, seeks to find a foothold under the high rises, only to collapse into the hollow grid-like like spaces that should be their foundations, and attempts to settle on ground that is subtly curved, billowing or cratered." The work is marked by "strange blooms of faded colour, dusty pinks, yellows and greens that glow uncertainly against almost monochrome ground colours, surprised occasionally by more accentuated patchworks that remind one simultaneously of Colin Middleton and of illustrated children's books."
Yet Marshall also maintains that Lawler's incredibly subtle treatment of colour, texture and scale, "make her work a celebration of everything that is good in painting. The work is uplifting because it is always uplifting to find artists with the courage to address difficult issues. When they do it so subtly and effortlessly, we all benefit. The last words in relation to Lawler's painting are a repetition of those attributed to the great German Modernist Mies Van Der Rohe on good architecture: 'less is more'."
Lawler was born in Kildare in 1977. She received a BA in Fine Art from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, in 2000. She has won numerous awards including the Hennessy Craig Award, RHA Gallery Annual exhibition in 2007, the Whytes Award, RHA Gallagher Gallery in 2007 and the overall winner of the Open Selection Exhibition Award at the Eigse Arts Festival in 2009. Other awards include a Kildare Arts Services Award 2015/2013/2011/2009, an Arts Council Bursary Award 2009, and Culture Ireland Award 2011. She was shortlisted for the Beers Lambert Contemporary, Thames and Hudson publication, 100 Painters of Tomorrow in 2013, the Celeste International Art Prize in 2012 and a Merit prize from the Golden Fleece Award in 2013.