Sarah Iremonger

Horizons 2014-18
Horizons is a continuing collaborative project with poet Derek Mahon. The project so far involves a completed prose piece, which has been published as part of the collection 'Olympia and the Internet' The Gallery Press 2017 (see below). The visual work is being developed in three parts. The first part involves works based on Cork Harbour, which investigates the idea of ‘separation’ represented through colour separations and the distant horizon. The second part is a reflection on the idea of ‘lost islands’ in this case Skellig Michael using nature camouflages and Star Wars imagery, while part three, looks at the idea of ‘beyond the horizon’ creating landscapes based on the works of Irish nineteenth century painter James Arthur O’Connor, nature camouflages and plastic waste vectors.

In this work I am interested in looking at ideas about interconnectedness and separation with regard to the romantic landscape tradition. Foreground and background are merged collapsing ideas about subject and object. Though the paintings are painstakingly hand painted, they suggest mechanically and digitally produced images, through the fragmentation of traced images into a kind of multilayered camouflage, as if the images are hiding within themselves.

Painting is my choice of medium for this project because it exposes the possibility of reducing everything to information or data, in this case lines and planes of colour, while at the same time, it offers the opportunity to reorganize and recreate that information in new and unexpected ways. It also opens up the opportunity for exploring and referencing the history of painting.

These works are painted in, what could be described as, an automatic way. Traced images are superimposed on top of one another to scatter or disintegrate the original images and then they are painted as if filling in a colouring book in a semi-unconscious way, by not letting the same colour touch each other, to create an illusion of spacial and temporal randomness.

The resulting images have implications with regard to the mental processes involved in understanding our visual world, 'pre-visual' memory of objects seen as abstract shapes in early childhood and how once we 'know' what the object is, it becomes enmeshed in our mind as part of the recognizable world. The mental processes involved depend upon memory, knowledge and familiarity. The fragmentation or abstraction of recognizable visual images here, calls upon these faculties to recreate vestiges of an understandable world.
Concerns regarding hidden and revealed identities are explored here also, in this case through the form of a series of camouflages for Skellig Michael. Skellig Michael can choose to hide in a variety of environments, for example, woodland, pink, desert and sea through different colour combinations which, take their inspiration from stock camouflage designs. The invention of a 'star wars camouflage' based on a simplified version of a storm trooper helmet helps to complicate things further. This combination acts like a hall of mirrors, where the image of the island is interwoven through the nature camouflages and the storm trooper camouflage as if looking through a kaleidoscope.

Documentation of the process and research material are included here. This work has been funded by a Cork County Council Arts Grants Scheme Award 2015 and two residencies at Cill Rialaig, Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry 2014 & 15.

Sarah Iremonger 2017

A white van dashes past. ‘Cleaning Solutions’, it reads, ‘in pursuit of global excellence.’ Biscuits are made with ‘joy’. Excellence and joy are now trade terms; ‘horizon’ too. What with training schemes and management speak, horizons, always figuratively useful – new horizons, broader horizons, time horizons – have a busier metaphorical life than ever. They’re especially good for adding a touch of mystery to the banal (what lies beyond the horizon?) but are often themselves banal, and in art can verge on kitsch: it’s a risky proposition. Beyond the horizon lie other horizons, each as ephemeral as the last; but the ephemeral is fascinating in itself. Waves slide and dance continuously out there, while what we see from the shore is only a straight line, often choppy, dividing sea from sky. A rough stretch of water presents itself as plane geometry; and a strange residue of Ptolemaic, flat-earth thinking, somewhere in the genes, sees horizons as a form of enclosure. We note surface activity – surfers, white sails, container ships – and imagine water temperatures and the Gulf Stream which, driven by prevailing winds, can move at a hundred miles a day and still be warm when it reaches us. Boundary, margin, limit, edge, says Roget; perimeter, skyline, rim. Horizons are all these things and more. They’re where we live; they’re there wherever we go, be they land, sea or city roof horizons. Symbolic land horizons include sand desert, that enigmatic, ocean-like phenomenon. Paul Bowles, in his strange, slow-moving Algerian novel The Sheltering Sky (1949), gets close to it: (Kit) ‘touched the window-pane; it was ice-cold. The bus bumped and swayed as it continued upward across the plateau…. Here in the desert, even more than at sea, she had the impression that she was on top of a great table, that the horizon was the brink of space.’ She experiences the Sahara as an existential extremity.
Considered philosophically, horizons present us with a paradox, confining and liberating our vision at the same time; nor are they real, or only momentarily so. While gratifying visual expectation, they remain imaginative constructs, fictions; the closer to them we get the more they recede, the more far-fetched they seem. Between the bright edge, that slight meniscus, and the immediate foreground, what dark depths, what intensity! Surrounded by land horizons (a line of hills, fields, houses, woods), why do we think primarily of sea horizons? Because they’re open, and because popular culture of the early 20th century, heyday of ocean travel, looked on them with such favour. Gaelic poets scanned them once for aid from overseas, but they seem not to have interested Shakespeare, for example, a Warwickshire man, who gives them no specific mention where you’d most expect, in The Tempest and so on; or Defoe (Crusoe is too busy to gaze out to sea), or the 18th century, except for those Gaelic poets and William Cowper, when the modern sailing and swimming cults had yet to establish themselves, as they soon did with Byron and the rest. The rise of 19th century imperialism gave horizons a new significance: all that tonnage racing back and forth to India and China. Their popularity peaked in the 1930s, those hard times, with the likes of Ernst Lubitsch’s flighty movie Monte Carlo (1930), where Jeanette MacDonald sings ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ (lyrics by Leo Robin), and James Hilton’s best-selling novel Lost Horizon (1933), which exploited the romance of long-distance flight and introduced the world to ‘Shangri-La’. Proust was on to Horizons early. A boy, though a precocious one, Marcel watches the evening sea from his hotel room at Balbec (Á l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, the Scott Moncrieff translation): ‘Sometimes the ocean filled almost the whole of my window, raised as it was by a band of sky edged at the top only by a line the same blue as the sea, so that I supposed it to be still sea, and the change in colour due only to some effect of lighting. Another day the sea was painted only in the lower part of the window, all the rest of which was filled with so many clouds, packed one against another in horizontal bands, that its panes seemed… to be presenting a “Cloud Study”.’
They cry out, as in Proust, for artistic representation; and more than this, for they work too as a compositional principal in art, what with frames and framing devices or their absence. (Howard Hodgkin painted on the frames themselves, and now we have the ‘expanded field’ of art outside the box.) The realistic horizon as compositional principle has been a feature of landscape painting at least since the 17th century of Claude and Ruisdael. Sarah Iremonger, a contemporary artist, once put it like this: ‘The vertical line suggests an actual presence, a being, whereas the horizontal line describes a place for that being to exist.’ She worked in the vertical for several years: dark upright panels – blues, greens – aspiring to black as in ‘Blue Light’ (1994) and ‘Night Light’ (1995). She has also worked in the horizontal: often a deep dark sea and a cloudy sky, laterally trisected, a hint of light at the horizon itself, but not really representational, ‘not pictures of horizons but experiments with paint.’ In there too is a ‘literary’ component. A close reader of Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry (1767) and related things, she warms to the nature of the ‘sublime’ as embodied in vastness and infinity; in horizons. Real horizons? No, schematic horizons: we’re not talking about seascapes here but about artscapes, even thoughtscapes. ‘This new idea,’ said Mondrian of abstraction, ‘will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour; on the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour.’ Iremonger now appropriates and disrupts this aesthetic, and the framing functions of colour and form. Her horizons define themselves not in realistic, or even abstract terms, but in imaginative ones: what lies beyond. What lies beyond perceived reality, the received frame of reference? Shifting frames, ontological alternatives, deep-water mysteries, drowned forests, shipwrecks, Star Wars, vanishing continents?
Marie Heaney, in Over Nine Waves (1994), renders a famous moment in the story of Niamh and Oisín (Finn Cycle) as follows: ‘Ahead of them they saw a most delightful country bathed in sunshine, spread out in all its splendor. Set amid the smooth rich plains was a majestic fortress that shone like a prism in the sun. Surrounding it were airy halls and summerhouses built with great artistry and inlaid with precious stones.’ The pair have arrived at Tír na nÓg where nobody grows old and sorrow is unknown. (The name survives in that of a beach-front resort in Antigua, a folk band, and video games including the techno-fascist Mystic Knights of Tír na nÓg.) But this shining destination is only of several imaginary places in the Atlantic. Hy-Brasil, supposedly a circular island a hundred miles or so off the south-west of Ireland, appeared on maps as late as the 19th century. Dodging sea monsters and waterspouts, St. Brendan went in search of it, says the Navigatio. Perhaps there was once such and island, since submerged by rising sea levels or subsidence of the sea bed. Paul Simons, in Weird Weather (1996), describes thermal inversions, mirages caused by weather: ‘When conditions are calm and warm air sits on top of cool air it creates a “temperature inversion” which behaves like a mirror, bending light and… revealing places hidden by the curve of the earth.’ The early Christian writers endowed such apparitions with religious significance (‘Brendan’ speaks):
I passed the voiceless anchorites, their isles,
Saw the ice-palaces upon the seas,
Mentioned Christ’s name to men cut off from men,
Heard the whales snort, and saw the Kraken!  
Uí Breasil, O’Brasil, the Breasal country, was named for St. Bresal (6th c.), a friend of Brendan, or perhaps for St. Bresal (8th c.), once an abbot of Iona. Isola or Insula de Brazil appears on 14th c. maps and stayed there at the same spot for centuries. Shortly after its disappearance from ‘history’, if not from myth and legend, Brunel’s Great Eastern laid the first successful transatlantic cable from Kerry to Newfoundland. There are many fiber-optic cables now, and no doubt that’s good news. Rachel Carson reported the bad news decades ago in a famous preface to the 1960 reissue of The Sea Around Us (1951), where she warned about the future of radio-active material: ‘By its very vastness and its seeming remoteness, the sea has invited the attention of those who have the problem of disposal, and with very little discussion and almost no public notice… has been selected as a “natural” burying place for contaminated rubbish.’ It doesn’t seem so as you look out at the waves and contemplate the horizon; but these things – drowned forests, shipwrecks, mythical lands, cables and nuclear waste – lie there in the subconscious, of which the Big Blue is a famously potent symbol.
We hear a different music of the spheres according to where we sit in the auditorium, said Einstein; and we see a different horizon according to where we stand on the shore. This relativity, and related deflections, inform Iremonger’s post-conceptual art. Working, for example, from digitally manipulated versions of traditional paintings, or from photographs of the sea as seen from Cobh, looking south over the Cork Harbour area, she uses deconstructive ‘colour separations’ to create images which are themselves horizons of thought. Nothing definitely is, everything is becoming; vision becomes re-vision, brine becomes watercolour: ‘I am painting about the horizons of painting, not horizons themselves as a subject but painting as the subject.’ So instead of familiar horizons, though she starts with these, we get event horizons of a kind, where previous convictions vanish, to be replaced by fragmentation (screensaver ‘tiles’) and re-construction, psychic flow, indeterminacy, unknowable futures. I could have wished for a few gills; but these artworks – paintings, photos, neon drawings – chart a voyage from the interior to the open sea and, while remaining themselves, document expanding fields of creative possibility, wherever the edge may be.'
Derek Mahon 2016
'Olympia and the Internet' The Gallery Press 2017