Elizabeth Magill

Verge Near Flyover

1999

Not on display

Artist
Elizabeth Magill born 1959
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1678 × 1982 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2020
Reference
T15547

Summary

Elizabeth Magill’s Verge Near Flyover 1999 is a large-scale painting that depicts a motorway flyover in half-light; whether it is dusk or dawn is unclear. Despite being almost two metres wide, the canvas offers only a partial account of the scene. The landscape is painted with monochromatic washes of dark blue, and much of the detail is swallowed up by an inky darkness. The flyover bridge is silhouetted darkly against the sky. The other prominent feature is a single sodium motorway light, its pole rising up from the slanted verge at a slight angle, not quite vertical, casting a pale light from each of its two bulbs. Beyond the flyover, the onward path of the road is delineated by pairs of bulbs snaking into the distance. The blurry swathes of deep blue paint are evidence of Magill’s tendency to work partially with the canvas on the horizontal. Embracing unpredictability, she builds up layer upon layer of thinly diluted poured paint, which pools here and there across the surface. Areas of thickly congealed paint return any illusion of a fading sky back to the materiality of the paint. Magill’s distressed surfaces are complex, combining various approaches to using paint within each canvas, and show evidence of the very physical approach to their making.

Verge Near Flyover presents itself initially as familiar, with instantly recognisable subject matter and references to the genre of landscape painting. However, there is an immediate friction between figurative legibility and the insistent visceral materiality of the work. As with many of Magill’s paintings, it also creates a sense of disquiet and unease. The places that Magill depicts, although rarely relating to a specific place, are mainly drawn from her memories of the landscape where she grew up in Northern Ireland. Verge Near Flyover is one of a number of paintings from this period whose titles emphasise a sense of being on the periphery of something, perhaps the edge of a city or a forest, or in this case a motorway (others include Forest Edge 1998 and Outside Stadium 2000). The motorway location is banal, and yet the painting suggests a disquieting narrative possibility, something that the curator Annie Fletcher has described in writing about the artist’s work:

There is a constant, maybe even fraught relationship between Magill’s dramatic use of representation and the more mundane but very present reality. Magill likes to think of her rendering of landscape as the creating of non-places, and that is exactly what they are – half imagined, vaguely located and instantly recognisable. But not isolated. Instead they are precariously balanced on the edge, nearing something that threatens their staged tranquillity.
(Annie Fletcher, ‘Elizabeth Magill’, in The Glen Dimplex Artists Award Exhibition 2001, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 2001, p.4.)

This narrative sensibility is a feature of Verge Near Flyover: its composition, with the flvover and motorway lights positioned high on the canvas, appears to draw on the low, wide-angle shot from cinematography which is frequently used to convey a sense of threat.

Though born in Canada, Magill grew up in Northern Ireland and her childhood there coincided with The Troubles, a particularly violent period of territorial tension and conflict in the region which began in the 1960s. Her ambivalent treatment of landscape has been associated with this history. For example, the critic and art historian Declan Long has written that ‘particular places are not often identified in any reductive, literal way in Magill’s art, but the assumption tends to linger that wherever we are – and however alien and absurd the content of the pictures becomes – we are not very far away from the formative world of her youth in the “divided landscapes” of Northern Ireland’ (Declan Long, ‘Elizabeth Magill’, RES, no.11, October 2014, pp.22–9). Indeed, Magill has spoken of how her experience of viewing the landscape in her native County Antrim, an area of great beauty, was never without an accompanying awareness of the violent atrocities that occurred within it.

Magill’s ambivalent, uneasy landscapes can also be understood within a wider context in the 1990s of Irish artists interrogating the landscape genre, so important for the construction of a nationalist identity for earlier generations. Curator Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith has written:

One of the stories that can be told of Irish art in the 1990s is a story of geographic dispersal and concomitant cultural diffusion and cross-pollination. This is reflected in different ways in the art produced during these years. A case in point is the reinterpretation of traditional representations of the landscape. Where an earlier generation of artists was happy to celebrate and romanticise the native landscape, much recent art prefers to subject it to various interrogations, reconfigurations and mutations … Elizabeth Magill de-romanticises conventional touristic areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as her native Country Antrim … In so doing, she has produced a series of distressed, hybrid landscapes that partake equally of a melancholic beauty and a toxic dystopianism.
(Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, ‘Irish Art in the 1990s’, in Shifting Ground: Selected Works of Irish Art 1950–2000, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 2000, pp.51–2.)

Elsewhere, Mac Giolla Léith has discussed Magill’s work as both engaging with and resisting the legacy of such Irish landscape painters as Paul Henry (1876–1958), whose paintings of the west of Ireland’s landscape held a specifically nationalist significance in the 1920 and 1930s. Their focus on the rural west had political resonance as this was the celebrated cradle of Gaelic culture. While Antrim is geographically removed from the west coast of Ireland, Mac Giolla Léith has argued that the ‘much vaunted beauty of its isles and coastline allows for its east assimilation into a generalised image of the romantic Irish landscape, which is intrinsically associated with the western seaboard’ (Mac Giolla Léith, ‘Elizabeth Magill’, in PS1 1999, p.100). Invoking W.J.T. Mitchell’s claim that ‘landscape is an object of nostalgia in a postcolonial and postmodern era’, Mac Giolla Léith maintains that, by contrast, ‘no such nostalgia for a prelapsarian past is entertained in Elizabeth Magill’s fractured, hybrid landscapes’ (Mac Giolla Léith, ‘Elizabeth Magill’, 1999, p.100).

Further reading
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, ‘Elizabeth Magill’, in 0044: Contemporary Irish Art in Britain, exhibition catalogue, PS1, New York 1999, pp.96–101.
Declan Long, ‘Elizabeth Magill’, RES, no.11, October 2014, pp. 22–9.
Elizabeth Magill: Headland, exhibition catalogue, New Art Gallery Walsall, Walsall 2018.

Helen Delaney
October 2019

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