'Maps and Mazes' by Ben Tufnell

A small girl crouches in a bamboo grove. The light is even. She looks down. We might mistake her posture for one of prayer or devotion. But she is tensed. Her hands are cupped over something on the floor, as if she has just trapped a small animal or insect. She contemplates this hidden object, contained within the closed cage of her fingers, intently, oblivious to the world around her, focussed in the moment. She is absorbed. Her skirt and jumper are shades of green and as a result she seems to become a part of the landscape. Details emerge slowly. The landscape which we at first take to be wild, a dense bamboo forest, is gardened, cut through with an edged path. This is a construction.

Frances Kearney’s new series presents a series of complex, ambiguous images featuring young girls. They seem both fragile and powerful. They enact obscure rituals and commonplace actions, symbolic gestures, within a succession of empty and evocative landscapes. Thematically the work is structured around an important and timely group of ideas. At its heart is an exploration of the tension between anxiety and security which is addressed through our paradoxical relationship with nature, a relationship characterised by both fear and comfort. The landscape is both a place of threat and of sanctuary. Kearney’s young girls are also experiencing empowerment through self-realisation. Whereas the works with which Kearney established her reputation in the 1990s focused on older children – young people on the cusp of adulthood, of transition, often caught at a telling moment amidst family or in fraught relationships with their peers – these new works are centred upon solitary figures. Here we see pre-pubescent girls in moments of intense self-absorption, of symbolic isolation. These are carefully constructed tableaux, richly ambiguous as to whether we are witnessing moments drawn from a narrative, or internal projections; ciphers for states of mind. Symbols. Kearney is not interested in the idea of illustration. Her images do not explain. If anything they obfuscate. They are suggestive and allusive, mysterious.

A scene of exceptional quietude. Contemplation. A girl on stilts makes her way across an empty landscape of water bisected by a wire fence. Grey sky. Water like a mirror. No ripples. She has paused. Where is she going?

Key to Kearney’s images’ power is the fraught relationship they explore between reality and imagination. While we have learnt to distrust photographs they do still automatically register as documents, as documentation of an actual event. Kearney’s work undermines this impulse, whilst simultaneously exploiting it. They have the flatness, the lack of ‘drama’ of reportage, yet are records of carefully staged and constructed imaginative tableaux. In making them she has selected the models, costumes, settings etc, much as a film director would. Everything is considered. Everything controlled.

A young girl wheels a barrow filled with conkers through a wild and leafy landscape. She looks up, as if some sound or movement has caught her attention, and she is absorbed by what she sees. The sky is darkening and it seems rain may be coming. Thunderstorms. Her clothes are timeless and it is hard to fix this scene to a point in time. Where is she going? What will she do with her strange harvest?

Kearney’s images inevitably draw on her own experiences yet suggest a wider realm of possible readings and meanings. Speaking of the genesis of her imagery she tells of random insights, dreams, inspirations, images that arrive in her consciousness and won’t be dislodged, demanding to be explored in her work. Feeding into this are artistic and literary precedents. She cites, for example, Ernest Hemingway’s short story, ‘The Big Two Hearted River’(1925) and Cormac McCarthy’ apocalyptic novel, The Road (2006) as works which articulate an intense and healing relationship with nature – in the former as something regained, and in the latter as something lost. Film is also important. Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is a key referent for this new body of work, and indeed one can read her images filmically, as stills drawn from a larger narrative flow of incident and action. One wonders what kind of work she would produce in moving images.

Art history too is a rich source of manner and tone, of cues if not specific images. One can see echoes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s approach to nature and symbolism, in particular a work such as Millais’ Autumn Leaves (1855-6), with its young girls situated within a landscape freighted with meaning.
Within a huge, empty, untended greenhouse a young girl stands in an attitude of defence. Her bicycle lies discarded. The ground is dry and dusted by crumpled brown leaves. The air is still. She is both distracted and engaged, somehow present and absent. Her feet are spread apart, grounded, her body tensed, ready, but her expression almost vacant. She raises her hands. Is she threatened by something or someone just beyond the edge of the image, or is this a moment of transcendental self-identification? A dream. Disrepair and immaculate concentration. Inside and outside. The passage of the seasons. Silence. How can we know what we behold? Is this play, or something more adult, that we are witness to?

The meaning of landscape is important. Within Kearney’s carefully orchestrated compositions the setting plays a key role. She has spoken of wanting to work with ‘landscapes on the edge’ in this series. Of wanting to address the idea of living simply, of living off the land, the idea of being on the edge (literally, on the edge of the land). In her new images this is manifested both literally and symbolically. The dunes and marshes, reedbeds and coastal forests, the expanse of the sea, are a constant presence.

McCarthy’s The Road ends on an extraordinary note. After a harrowing journey during which the bonds between a father and son are tested to their limit, during which the fragility of life is constantly asserted, where survival seems doubtful, and existence itself seems to be at the ‘edge’, there is an extraordinary affirmation of the enduring mystery of nature:
‘Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains… On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.’

This humming resonates throughout Frances Kearney’s new work. Ben Tufnell