Niamh O'Malley

Sometimes even the simplest and most familiar ideas can yield extraordinary results. “Vignette,” Niamh O’Malley’s first solo exhibition in a Dublin gallery, was based on a coalescence of the traditional concerns and effects of painting and cinema, a merging of domains that has informed much contemporary art but which was here rendered literal rather than notional. The show featured two separate works placed some distance apart on opposing walls in the large, darkened main space—DVD projections onto what, on entering the gallery, at first appeared to be blank screens. It gradually became apparent, however, that what one was seeing was in both cases a visual palimpsest, a doubled representation of the same scene. A suite of small works on paper in pencil and watercolor was displayed in an adjoining corridor.

The larger of the two main works, The dene “vignette,” 2004, was a short (two and a half minute) video loop of a quiet corner of New York’s Central Park taken from a fixed vantage point. (These works were all produced while the Ireland-based O’Malley was on a residency at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens.) This loop was then projected onto an enormous canvas on which the same scene had been sketched out and painted to the exact same scale as the projected image. The underlying painted landscape was empty and unpeopled, its central presence and visual focal point a lone, Victorian-style black lamppost. During the course of the looped footage, however, various passersby stroll through the scene, their presence rendered ghostly by the fact that the painted landscape shows through the superimposed moving imagery. When both frames are empty of people the still scene shimmers uncannily, especially when viewed straight on from a distance of several feet. As the viewer shifts around in front of the canvas or moves closer, the painted surface gradually asserts itself and the artifice becomes more apparent. At the end of the loop the projected image suddenly, briefly, and gorgeously dissolves into the painting before reestablishing itself and starting over again.

Skillman Ave “vignette,” 2004, a still view from on high of a building surrounded by trees, occasionally disturbed by the flutter of flying birds, works on the same principle to the same unsettling but mesmerizing effect. This structurally simple strategy of infecting the space of painting with cinematic effect has complex ramifications. O’Malley speaks of an attempt to “present multiple viewpoints that frustrate the achievement of spectacle” through “a marked . . . reproduction of the real production; an acknowledged representation of a representation.” Yet this dutiful genuflection toward the self-critical image does little to detract from the fact that these mildly disconcerting, flickering pictures are visually lush and intensely seductive, and O’Malley also acknowledges that the distancing mechanism of the double framing within these works may have the paradoxical effect of actually intensifying “the aura of the original moment” rather than diminishing it. The dene “vignette” in particular manages to suffuse the mundane mechanics of contemporary video surveillance with the nostalgic glow of traditional landscape painting in a manner that is both enthralling and gently thought provoking.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith