"Out of the marvellous"

An Essay by Theo Dorgan

How to explain the brute fascination Monte Sainte Victoire exercised on the imagination of Cézanne? Part of the answer lies in the obdurate ‘thereness’ of the mountain itself, the insolent brazen fact of its bulk and internal geometry. He wanted to answer, in paint, to the fact of its presence. I evoke Cézanne here to make, from the start, a critical point about Geraldine O’Sullivan’s paintings: these are not landscape paintings, as the term was understood before Cézanne. O’Sullivan is painting the world, certainly, but she is not striving here to make pictures of  the world, she is adding to the thereness of those parts of the world she ‘paints’, she is adding paintings that exist in and of and for themselves as facts brought to light by craft and imagination, spun from the air of a particular place. If the geology and geometry of Reengarriv Point is found in her painting of that name, so also is our sense that matter is energy frozen at a point in time, in the place and in the painting; we can dare to say they are brought into existence, the place and the painting both, by similar acts of profound imagination, the act of making. In this long sequence of paintings, most vividly in the spinning mastery of Under Bray Head Signal Tower, O’Sullivan is making the landscape of South West Cork and Kerry again, its dance of colour and substance, its answering to the play of light, its power to invest and haunt our memories.

If that were all she were doing, it would be miracle enough — to give us, on the wall so to speak, the place again, in all its power and majesty and its power to enthrall us —but she does more: by some alchemical touch she evokes, even in the emptiest of landscapes, the human presence that makes this our home planet. In the collage works, such as Good Friday and The Home Place, there is a controlled grief that speaks of exile, of hardship, of what is lost to us— those empty hearths, those suitcases of the emigrant poor, the dispossessed. In the paintings, too, we get this sense of a ghostly peopling, of the fishermen who braved the rocks of the Mizen, the women and children, men and boys who roamed (and still roam) the strands and cliffs and foreshores of this place. Their absence, I might put it this way, supplies a living presence. To endure in memory, after all, to be evoked and called back in these works, is to live on, to be acknowledged and claimed in the unbroken chain of being.

O’Sullivan paints those power-filled overlapping places where air, colour, light, earth and water share a common geometry, terrible places where impersonal forces collide, blend and melt in a world that is always in a process of becoming — see, for example, Hanging Over The Cliff Edge. This should be an alien place, a place of blind forces at work in pitiless light, but she makes us at home here, as Cézanne makes us feel Monte Saint Victoire is, somehow, ours: she does this by acknowledging her own presence working through the brush, not hiding but standing clear, the maker’s mark at once invitation and guarantee that this place, her own place, is also our place. Here is the marvellous as Geraldine O’Sullivan has known it. She paints the world we think we know, and makes it new.

— Theo Dorgan, Dublin 2009