Spell of the Wood: a midsummer-night’s dream

Review: For her first public solo show in Ireland, Liliane Tomasko’s point of reference is a tremendous painting by pioneering Irish modernist painter Nano Reid

That Liliane Tomasko’s first solo show in Ireland in a public space - she shows regularly with the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin - is at the Highlands in Drogheda has to do with her liking for the pioneering Irish modernist painter Nano Reid. A comparison of their work suggests that Tomasko found in Reid something of a kindred spirit.

Born in Drogheda, Reid was the daughter of a publican (and later became one herself). She pursued her art education in Dublin, then Paris and London, before settling back in Dublin and, latterly, Drogheda. Involved though she was in Ireland’s progressive art scene, including jointly representing the country at the Venice Biennale with Norah McGuinness, there remained something private and inward-looking about her painting, with its terse, hieroglyphic lines and muted mid-tones. She was instinctively attuned to the densely layered antiquity of the Boyne Valley, and in her art there is always a sense that modernity is deeply rooted in and entangled with place and history.

Reid’s painting is entirely non-ingratiating, she has no interest in pictorial niceness, which is something Tomasko has in common with her. Though she was born in Switzerland, both Tomasko’s parents were Hungarian. Not uncommonly for Eastern Europeans (then and alas now), they were displaced, in their case by the Soviet invasion that suppressed the Uprising of 1956, though they later returned. She never seems to have been inclined to settle in Hungary, and is based in New York and Germany.

Her work has from the first been open to and depends on a level of instability or unease. Earlier on she cited the disarray of a vacated bed and clothing as a starting point, evoking the absent bodies and beings, the dreams and anxieties and demands of sleepers now facing up to the day’s travails. Colour with an emotional charge, often with an acidic edge and in slightly disharmonious combinations, was important. Swooping lines echoed fabric shaped by occupancy and charged the indeterminate pictorial space with giddy energy. She has since been drawn even more to the strange, irrational vividness of dreams, with their erratic progression and abrupt disjunctures, finding in them ideal models of a destabilised picture plane.

Reid’s tremendous painting Spell of the Wood, in which a figure sleeps in the moody, dark topography, above ground and subterranean, of the Boyne Valley’s monumental landscape, is included in the exhibition and is Tomasko’s point of reference. That landscape is surely talismanic for her midsummer-night’s dream, her portal to the realm of magic and the unconscious, in which the fantastic unfolds. Two huge new paintings, SPELL and WOOD, rhythmic, broad-brushed and airy, are supplemented by a number of smaller, more physically concentrated pieces, made mostly with the dense massed pigment of oil sticks. Figurative hints recur and blocks of colour coalesce into intense presences while titles dispense fragmentary narrative hints. It is a bold, involving show, enriching in its dialogue between two artists separated by time and geography but sharing a common spirit.

Liliane Tomasko’s Spell of the Wood is at the Highlanes Gallery, Laurence St, Drogheda, Co Louth until August 20th. highlanes.ie

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times