New York

Elizabeth Magill

Artemis Greenberg van Doren

Most landscape painting focuses on the land: its valleys, its horizons, its mountain peaks. But for Irish painter Elizabeth Magill, the sky is the main attraction. In her work, the earth is often nothing more than a hulking silhouette separated from the heavens by a carefully drawn horizon line, while vast patches of sky, marked out with birds, solidly occupy the majority of the canvas. Sometimes no land is visible at all; its existence is implied only by treetops or wires from an electric bus or tram. In almost every case, what’s above is more interesting than what lies below.

Night is a common setting. Magill’s murky nightscapes, in which dark fields are speckled with tiny lights, are reminiscent of Whistler’s work—particularly his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, c. 1874 (the one that inspired Ruskin’s comment about flinging pots of paint). But Magill’s compositions are much more precise than Whistler’s. Untitled (Strand), 2002, for instance, is a flat black field broken only by a string of yellow dots, rendered to create the impression of lights reflecting on water at night. The deep black landmass in Broadway, 2001, is also marked by yellow dots—lights on a lakeshore—under an iridescent dark blue sky.

What’s not apparent in reproduction is the weathered, distressed, emulsified look Magill achieves on the canvas. This is the result of a horizontal start: She pours coat after coat of paint onto the surface of a can- vas, building it up slowly, before putting it upright on an easel and adding “imagery.” Flecked, scarred, and stained with washes of oil, some of the paintings look like they’ve just emerged from years of storage in an unprotected garage; this somehow adds to their presence. While a wake of oil spreads out from the center of Roches Point 2, 2002, the trees in the picture also have halos of stain. Though the title refers to a location in Ireland, the picture gives the impression of a heat-seared sub-Sahara.

Juxtaposition of color, mass, and shape is a significant concern here, but so is the primordial relationship of figure to ground. In Glen, 2002, yellow-green trees shimmer against a dark backdrop like figures against black velvet. Untitled Treetop, 2002, in which the leaves and branches of a tree appear only at the very bottom of the canvas, and Overhead (3), 2002, in which a blue skyscape is sliced up by electrical wires, reveal how even fragmentary visual information allows the viewer to orient him- or herself in a horizonless world (an idea explored in Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds and in Monet’s gaze on that pond strewn with water lilies). In Burma, 2003, a reddish water and sky, differentiated in the middle of the canvas, dissolve into each other at the edges; foreground melts into background and illusion into abstraction. The transition is imperceptible at first but resolves into the work’s most significant move.

Photographic techniques also come to mind. Burma is like an overexposure; Glen a negative or an image seen through an infrared lens. As with many painters, Magill starts with photographs, some of which are printed in the catalogue accompanying the show. But these black-and-white images of trees and sky pale in comparison to the paintings, whose vibrant, weathered surfaces possess a visual wisdom that is both trenchant and poetic.

Martha Schwendener