by Niall Macmonagle, Art Critic
Ireland once home to eight million people, even today is a place of ghosts. Traces of those lives lost to famine and emigration can be seen still, especially in the West of Ireland. A stone wall, a gable end, lazy beds, potato drills, a wild rose bush, a flowering currant tree remind us that a family once lived here, that this now ruin was a place someone once called home.
In her poem ‘The Island. A Prospect’, Paula Meehan charts this country’s dark history as ‘bitter tales of landlords, emigration of plantation, rebellion, famine and ruin’ and Gemma Billington’s powerful new work, An Duchas, explores aspects of that complex, lonely past in images that evoke the concept of home within and against an Irish landscape.
An Duchas, meaning native place, also means a ‘a natural affinity, a kindred affection’ and here Billington conveys not only a deepening connection with her native place but a preoccupation with and love for the landscape she knows well. Her heart’s affections are felt in work of vibrant colours, in a strikingly new command of bold dramatic lines, in Billington’s assured structure and composition.
In those new paintings the house though an intrinsic part of the landscape does not dominate. We glimpse a roof, a gable wall against the abundant landscape. We imagine the lives lived, the world’s contained with those homes. In Sean Borodale’s memorable, atmospheric ‘Air House’ (a poem he subtitles ‘composite made during visits to an abandoned house in Mayo’) he writes of how
With no usable door
I had to climb in through a broken window
There were unopened letters, a bottle of holy water
the sacred heart disintegrating on its paper . . .
That yellow wooden chair is a ghost
and in the left drawer of the blue sideboard in the kitchen
that reel of crimson thread is a ghost.
Such imagined long-gone lives are also prompted by Billington’s new paintings. Her last exhibition captured the surging, storm-filled Atlantic. Here she has moved inland and brings back to life ghostly presences. Her focus is the domestic, as in domus, ‘home’, but it is the vibrant landscape too. Her palette contains dramatic reds, blues, greens; her perspective is such that the work draws one in. For the viewer it’s a deepening silent, nourishing experience.
Living in this landscape is celebrated and though time brings change and homes have fallen into ruin An Duchas invites us to remember the busyness of life, the dreams and hopes of people who once lived here.
In ‘The Only Story’ Julian Barnes asks is life beautiful but sad or sad but beautiful. It’s a question he borrowed from Frank O’Connor’s essay on Mozart. In this instance, in relation to Gemma Billington new show the answer is life is sad but beautiful. There’s no escaping sadness and, as these paintings testify, life contains its sorrows. Place for Billington contains the past, a past that has known inevitable disappointment and loss; the work convincingly acknowledges what is sad but ends on a beautiful note. For Gemma Billington, in the new body of work, the life is sad but beautiful.
She has found that sadness in the landscape she knows well, she knows those places where houses have been abandoned but she cherishes the lives once lived there and she celebrates the beauty of the natural landscapes, on-going vibrant abundant nature. But the enduring power of these paintings is in Billington’s outstanding skill in what are loving tributes to place, what place has meant and what place means to all the lives that ever lived and live there.
The personal online exhibition ‘An Duchas (Homeland)’ of paintings by Gemma Billington is held on the gallery website from 16th September to 31st October 2019. Visit the exhibition at http://www.hayhill.com/docs/billington.html