Bridget Flannery is a painter with a considerable track record. While you could, as Brian Fallon once observed, describe her as a landscape painter, it is more accurate to say she is a painter of nature.
Her paintings emerge from her engagement with the landscape in the widest sense – the character of place and her experience of it, feelings of belonging or not belonging; memories and reflections.
The paintings develop a visual language that owes much to abstraction. Their nuanced surfaces recall natural textures, atmospheric subtleties and while they are internally consistent they are not conventionally representational.
She builds up nuanced tonalities with collaged layers of paper saturated with pigments. There is a compressed energy to her compositions while her use of colour and texture is always mature and assured.
Her work is quietly and surely persuasive.
– Aidan Dunne.
These images evolved in an abstract and often or sometimes a poetic way…In many ways I see painting as a kind of archaeology in the emergence of shapes and images through an overlay of colour and tone
– Bridget Flannery, September 1990.
Mark Ewart finds that the weight of art history and the lineage of landscape painting is never far away in Bridget Flannery’s work.
Bridget Flannery has always shown great acuity and connection with her immediate surroundings. In these times however, her recent paintings are an imaginary expression of the beautiful places she has visited and those she years for. Whether she is painting Ardmore, Co. Waterford, or Carlow, where she is now based, her eye and her memory are drawn to ‘texture, tone, shape and history’. Flannery’s current paintings in acrylic, often using collage on birch panels, are bolder, more intense and more pared back than previous works. ‘Maybe it is because of lockdowns,’ she suggests, that ‘the paintings have become spaces or places in themselves that spark me on to new work.’
The transitions between night and day, the changing seasons, the Irish language and its associated culture and rituals are sources of inspiration for Flannery. These liminal spaces describe the essence of her psychogeography, in that rural and urban architecture meld with natural shorelines, each hewn from ancient stone. Indeed, her formative years in the St. Luke’s area of Cork city explain this synergy – a vantage point above the city, propped up by limestone and sandstone walls which she affectionately calls ‘streaky bacon’, is etched into her consciousness. The flow into the city, ‘where you are plunged down into narrow streets, high buildings and narrow space’ continued along the banks of the river Lee. This journey now follows the River Barrow in Carlow – ‘the flow of walking, crossing over, moving with and around a river has always been a great comfort and excitement to me’.
Flannery says that the past year has allowed her ‘a gentle routine of walking, painting, listening to music and looking at things’. The painting workshops that usually conducted had to be put on hold. They were replaced with a tranquil appreciation for the changing light and the movement of water, which she harnessed and distilled into sketchbooks. A series of large drawings explored mark-making and the tonality of colour, as patters of interlocking shapes emerged, gently alluding to landscape vistas and details within rock and flora.
Flannery’s working process is highly tactile and intuitive, responding to the movement of the paint as the work evolves and employing mixed media when appropriate. She explains how ‘shapes are drawn, torn, collaged over, stuck down, painted over, scrubbed, incised’. Even then, she often does more to the work; the surface can be sanded back again until the piece fits together to her satisfaction. The physicality of this process ties in with her fascination with shorelines and rock formations, as well as driftwood, flotsam and jetsam. No surprise, then, that combine paintings and found objects started to feature in her work during the early 1990s. An ongoing series, notionally entitled ‘Days Beside Water’, takes these objects and responds to their weathering by time and tide. ‘I’ve been collecting bits of fishing ropes, nets and other plastic rubbish recently, described by a friend as “trawler trash”, and weaving them into discarded mussel bags to make highly textured and colourful wall pieces that have a strange beauty. She finds the abundance of detritus ‘frightening and disgusting’ and the environment is a theme that has come into her teaching practice too. ‘I always hope,’ she affirms, ‘that in awakening people to look keenly, a greater appreciation for our immediate environment will be fostered.’
The horizon line is often the starting point from which Flannery constructs her composition. The weight of art history and lineage of landscape painting is never far away. ‘I keep Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea in mind, with all its romanticism and drama,’ she reveals. The counterfoil is that this very same horizon line can ‘create balance or imbalance in how I manoeuvre shapes around it, making a shallow, non-referential space that asks to be taken as it is.’ A nod, then, to pure abstraction.
Philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Rainer Maria Rilke have influenced the artist and it is through her reading and teaching that the cerebral aspect of her practice is tied to the physical world. Flannery also cites the influence of contemporary music. On hearing Benjamin Dwyer’s six residua (after Beckett), the artist contemplated the silence, stillness and the physical spaces implied. Bone Bright Day with Willow (Fig 1) was the painting which captured that feeling. On a walk along the river on a day enshrouded by dense, freezing fog, Flannery encountered a willow tree, with its ‘pulsing orange of new growth.’ Later the same day, a persimmon fruit found in a local shop brought the experience full circle. The orange and white colouring was visceral, searing into the artist and leading to its own mini-series of paintings.
– Mark Ewart. Irish Arts Review, Vol 38. No 2 Summer (June-August 2021)
An abstract artist from the very start of her career, Bridget Flannery paints in response to what she sees. As Brian Fallon observed in 2000, while her paintings might have an organic relationship with specific times and places, ‘she makes no attempt to reproduce the surface appearance of things or to evoke purely transient effects of wind, weather and light.’ Flannery, he wrote, ‘can be described as a landscape painter, thought it might be more correct to describe her as a painter of Nature in the wider sense.’ Similarly in the Irish Times of February 2003, Aidan Dunne remarked that for Flannery the function of landscape ‘is to provide her with a workable space in which she can explore the emotional, expressive qualities of colour, texture and tone.’
She has travelled a great deal but this has not affected the essential character of her work which early on revealed as much an interest in surface as in underlying form and pattern. Reviewing Flannery’s first solo show in February 1984, the Irish Times’ Hilary Pyle commented ‘Texture matters a great deal to her, probably based on a study of peeling, painted wood,’ and noted certain similarities with Serge Poliakoff. At the time Flannery’s palette was considerably darker than it subsequently became: a contemporaneous review in Circa described the work as ‘tacking the experience of the perception of colour within darkness.’ In the Irish Arts Review (Volume 26, No. 3) Mary O’Donnell described how ‘Jagged edges of paper are sometimes collaged onto the surfaces, so that the effect is one of work in relief, then thickly and vigorously covered by paint.’ But while her tonal range progressively lightened, her primary source of inspiration remained landscape. Texture matters to her, not least as an evocation of the landscape she has observed. ‘I work from drawings that I make outside,’ she told the Carlow People in May 2007. ‘I build up the texture of the shapes, then work them into the paintings. It’s a constant refinement.’ Quite rightly Alannah Hopkin, writing in the Sunday Times of February 2000, remarked that Flannery’s pictures were ‘constructed as much as painted’ giving the results a pulsating three-dimensionality. ‘Paint and collage materials are bullied and tormented,’ remarked Mark Ewart in a short 2007 catalogue essay, ‘stripped away, sanded back until discordance or harmony is achieved. Diligent practice has shaped and refined a language of abstraction that reaches its apogee intuitively and with great honesty.’ Flannery’s October 2009 exhibition in Dublin’s Cross Gallery showed that she had by no means exhausted the possibilities of this enterprise with a series of paintings which were simpler in style but just as powerful in effect.
The process of refinement is ongoing.
– Robert O’Byrne, Dictionary of Living Irish Artists. Plurabelle Publishing, Dublin 2010.