Niamh O'Malley at the Bluecoat, Liverpool

A new exhibition at the Bluecoat presents recent work by multidisciplinary artist Niamh O'Malley. We pay a visit and consider the concepts at the heart of her practice

Feature by Kyle Nathan Brown | 12 Nov 2015

In early October, the Liverpool's Bluecoat gallery opened the doors to its new exhibition, Glasshouse, the first UK solo show of Dublin-based artist Niamh O’Malley. Born in County Mayo, Ireland, O'Malley received a PhD in practice-led research in 2003 from the University of Ulster in Belfast and now lives and works in Dublin. Professionally working since 1996, she has exhibited in a number of both group and solo shows internationally, including an international studio programme residency at MoMA PS1 in New York.

At the preview evening for Glasshouse, the rooms are full of art-exhibition-preview-evening-goers, of which The Skinny is one. The gallery is filled with sharp angles and thick lines of wood and glass, and sketchy lines and smudges of black and grey paint; and everything is surrounded by a flock of free-wine guzzlers.

Previews and openings are quite possibly the worst times to view an exhibition, as it seems you can never fully experience the work; instead you experience wafts and murmurs of chitchat and general art appreciation. We revisit the exhibition on a different day, and it's clearer that the gallery’s brutalist interior holds compositions of glass and wood, some with paint and some without, drawings and prints on paper with more glass and wood, and three video pieces (two on TV screens and one projected). The works in the show containing representational content all make reference to nature or landscape, and it's the video pieces that first capture our attention.

Niamh O'Malley's Video Pieces

The first of these is Quarry (2011). In a dark room on a bench against a wall, the viewer sits facing the ten-minute projection: static shots of walls with falling bricks and white rocks at an Irish limestone quarry. The images are crisp white, with perfect definition due to the black screen behind.

Throughout the piece, however, this detail is distorted by what appear to be frosted or textured panes of glass; out of focus, they enter and exit at the forefront of the shot. These sheets of glass are the piece's only hint towards its not having been shot in black and white, as the rest of the scenery is so subtle in colour. The piece is an exercise in image-making: by framing, cropping and enhancing the view captured by the camera, the artist focuses her, and consequently our, attention on the specific image.

Another video piece (and the exhibition's namesake), Glasshouse (2014), is a two-channel loop on HD TV screens in black and white that uses similar methods in observing a space. In this piece, the camera pans across a row of derelict greenhouses that, like the elements in Quarry, obstruct the view of the natural scenery of overgrown grass and plants.

Of her video work, O'Malley says she is “interested in a form of documentation which is trying to observe and even scan the surface or the actuality of the site, while being aware of the limitations of its form (video).

“The site or space becomes important in that I made a decision to ‘observe’ it and therefore gave it attention.”

From this, we can further understand the artist’s ideas in practice. By using video as a creative medium – as mark-making – the space becomes the subject, and the attention it is given becomes the context of the work.

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In another room, we are confronted by Window (2013): a wooden seating platform holds up a wooden frame, birch and oak, with the painted glass standing central. At the exhibition preview the chitchat continues as people sit awkwardly on the artwork. (During my revisit I consider sitting upon it but decide I would gain little from it.)

The piece, which is around 7ft tall, is essentially a window that allows us our own viewfinder, depending on which side we stand. On the artist’s website a description of the piece states that ‘The painting, which is visible from front and back – becomes a limitless translucent form, complicating ideas of reverse, background, and negative space.’ The paint is applied as abstract marks, with indications to landscapes and natural form.

There are delicately painted leaves on a branch at one side of the piece – reminding the viewer of a window to a large natural garden – some shrubbery in the foreground and simple reminders of nature across the whole. The marks are vague blocks of black and grey, yet nothing seeks to remind of manmade form, only nature. A work of solid design and construction, there are no frills or decoration here, strongly suggestive of nature.

Other pieces – again, of glass and wood and paint – assembled in a strong, collage-like fashion are reminiscent of Dada artists or even Rauschenberg; but these are different. Their strength is in their simple designs and basic use of materials, as seems to be the case with the majority of O’Malley’s work.

Niamh O'Malley: Materials and Themes

To a question regarding the process of selecting materials, O’Malley says that “a piece of glass gets some marks on it, sits on a shelf and becomes observed over time for what it does… and perhaps even becomes a work. It is a process of learning through making rather than thinking about making.”

This willingness to allow the work, in a sense, to become itself and then, as the artist, bring attention to it gives insight into O’Malley’s artistic process. In a way, the ends justify the means, both of which rely on the relationship between the materials.

Elsewhere one also sees, on the gallery walls and floors, more of the same compositional constructs that seem to relate to each other while also being completely individual. Double Glass (2014), Hollow (2014), Titled Glass (2015) – all of these works are at the same time comparable and dissimilar. This could be said to come from the artist’s way of using material so honestly. It is the simplicity of the work – the blatancy of “that is wood, that is glass, that is paint,” and so on – that allows this paradox.

In accordance with this, there is a struggle, too, to find one theme to apply to the exhibition.

In one way, O’Malley focuses, conceptually, on images and attention and is interested in “our relationship to landscape as an image and how we conjure it in our minds and relate to it with our viewing bodies.” Yet in another, mark-making and composition take centre stage. This speaks loudly of the artist's abilities and readiness to experiment confidently within her practice.

What can be said for sure is that Glasshouse is a well-curated exhibition, showcasing the artist's recent work, and allowing viewers unfamiliar with Niamh O’Malley to experience an array of concepts and mediums from her repertoire.

Niamh O'Malley: Glasshouse runs at The Bluecoat, Liverpool, until 10 Jan. Artist Madeline Hall leads a free tour of the exhibition on 7 Nov, 2pm, and the gallery's head of programme, Marie-Anne McQuay, leads a tour on 28 Nov, 2pm