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A Raid into dark Corners, Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, 2015

A Raid Into Dark Corners, 2015

Introduction written by Terry Sweeney

"Contour" I and II are the first two wood engraving prints which were prepared by Susan Mannion for this exhibition which was commissioned by Omagh Arts Committee to run in conjunction with the annual festival celebrating the work of Omagh writer, Benedict Kiely (1919-2007). These two works immediately allow the viewer to see how her expertise in archaeology has permeated her artistic sensibilities. She has approached the task in a characteristically systematic way, at first keeping a distance and then moving closer. These first introductory works emanate from a distant overview or aerial view of the lines of elevation of the land around Omagh. In much the same way as the archaeologist examines the topography in order to detect the remains of human habitation, she uses an informed imagination to see the possibilities of what lies below. The resulting images are a cool, analytical and knowing appraisal of the overlapping shapes and intersecting plains of the land. In "Contour II", a clear, precisely shaped wood engraving print in solid black is overprinted with a mesh of diagonal grey ink bands of textured woodcut reminiscent in many ways of the paths or the shafts of searchlights making penetrating raids into the dark corners of the land.


Susan Mannion currently lives in Boyle, County Roscommon but recently while caring for her ailing father in her native Omagh she rediscovered the landscape of her childhood guided by the writing of Benedict Kiely. She was particularly drawn to "the binding of place and story, object and feeling" and the manner in which "Kiely layers his work and the way it twists in on itself and reconnects. There is an entwining and binding of the present of the story and the linkages to the past, drawing down historical fact, folklore and tradition to weave a tapestry of rich visual imagery." 


The experience of once again walking in the countryside around Omagh, sketching, drawing and photographing allowed Benedict Kiely's words to refresh her personal appreciation of the distinctive nature of the hills, trees, rivers, loughs, bogland and farmland of this part of Tyrone. The solitude of these explorations appears to have engendered a growing emotional re-attachment to the home ground and provoked a corresponding quality in her work.


Wood relief printing has been favoured by artists on a global scale though millennia and in the twentieth century woodcut was favoured famously by German expressionist artist Emil Nolde (1867-1956). It uses a wood grain which responds easily to carving.  Wood engraving on the other hand is a painstaking process requiring stillness, intense focus and concentration. The preferred material for Susan Mannion's wood engravings is Boxwood, but due to cost and size restrictions, Susan frequently substitutes Lemonwood (not to be confused with wood from the lemon tree). Boxwood is slow growing, taking many generations to form an even, dense and extremely hard grained wood from which type-high blocks are made using the end grain or cross section of the tree. Woodcuts on the other hand are made by using the longitudinal grain of trees and are more textured than the mirror smooth surface of a boxwood block. The contrasting effects can be seen quite clearly in the "Contour" series and even more clearly in "Two Lovers" where the image of the two facing conical stones are represented in wood engraving print and the surrounding lake water with blue-inked woodcut.


To achieve wood engraving relief prints, the image required is sketched onto the boxwood block and the artist uses sharp bladed tools, the spitsticker, the graver, the scorper and the tint tool to engrave onto the aged wood. In the process of incising lines into the hard wood and paring away the surface Susan Mannion seems to release an energy embedded in the compacted grain. She appears to inscribe with light, peeling away the past and fusing it with the present. The technique highlights her technical precision, her sensitive, close and accurate observation as well as her bold, strong draughtsmanship.


Wood engraving invites emphatically clear linear definition which highlights shape, pattern and texture. It is almost exclusively and traditionally carried out in black and white as befits a skill historically associated with the printing and transmission of text, literature and its complementary illustrations. Historically Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) perfected these illustrative skills and even today well known practitioners such as Simon Brett, Harry Brockway and Paul Kershaw continue the tradition. Mannion admires and appreciates the qualities of these Master wood engravers. She is part of a community of contemporary printmakers, very few in number, who keep the art of wood engraving alive by honing the essential skills while developing its potential beyond the narrative and the illustrative. Her work is not bound to the convention of illustration or monochrome. Indeed she brings to the art a fresh visual experiment by means of varying the density of inks and individually selected colour combinations resulting in prints which are totally unique. 


Distant horizons, rolling farmland and bogland are depicted with linear strength and vigour with the energy of moving branches being fully exploited in works such as "Sallies and Bog-Birch" and particularly in the vibrant "Swaying Treetops". With equal verve Mannion examines surfaces such as iced water drawing attention to the complex layered patterning of frost and goes below the surface of the water as it were towards the legendary oyster shells hiding pearls in the river Strule and rolling pebbles below moving water.


Indeed water is a dominant theme in this exhibition and Mannion is particularly struck by Kiely's concept of investing water with an historical memory. "Water may know more than we think....Water doesn't need light to see. Water is a sort of god. Or at any rate a goddess." 


Water is essential to the narrative and metaphorical imagery of Benedict Kiely's anti-violence polemical novella Proxopera. Mannion felt she "connected with his words about water and its life force (both the dark and the light) and the offering to water that he mentions." In her artwork water is never still, the mottled uneven pattern of "Disturbed Surface", the obscured muddiness of "Lough Muck Storm" and the trembling, shimmering "Light Lines" visually paralleling the sense of unrest, the undercurrent of foreboding tragedy, and the menacing threat of violent savagery in Proxopera.


Emotional involvement becomes even more evident as she moves to look below surfaces and becomes engaged with not just the physical landscape but also with its human history. This progression seems to lead to an increase in subtlety and nuance in composition, the visual exploration of more complex linear patterns and an increase in the painterly use of coloured ink.  There are more instances of intricate thread-like lines and fine textural incisions in her work which play a central role in effecting rich tonal qualities which in turn create an atmospheric, surreal aesthetic distilling a sense of place, time and memory. This is particularly so in the spectral and haunting  "Vocal Sadness" which  draws on the imagery in Proxopera of a lonely lake as the site of countless suicides. Indeed Mannion sites Proxopera as the most affecting of all Benedict Kiely pieces of writing.


 "His love of Omagh comes through in his work.... Proxopera...I consider to be a love note to Omagh, the place of childhood memories for him" states Mannion.


Water continues to be a strong inspirational feature of the copper enamelled panels and three-dimensional forms in this exhibition. These works provide a contrast in approach yet the underlying techniques require a complementary exacting skill. Powdered glass is dusted in a succession of coloured layers onto the copper surface and when settled, Mannion, engraves back through the layers of powdered glass to reveal base colours or metal. The copper pieces are then placed in the kiln and brought to a temperature where the powder becomes a glass skin. The process enhances the fleeting effects of light on the flowing direction of water in "Confluence", of the pattern of light caused by the underwater movement in the three rivers of Omagh, the "Strule", the "Camowen" and the "Drumragh". It also allows Mannion a greater freedom to explore the rich visual possibilities inherent in the mythical notion of a water goddess.


Line has a fluent and expressive quality in these copper enamelling works and serves to remind us of Mannion's wide ranging ability to suggest landscape, human and animal forms with economy confidence and ease. There are even subtle references to what appears to be the staccato lines of ogham script - one of the first forms of written communication in Ireland. These understated but important references sit well with the rich resonating colour which sings out in continuous harmonious rhythmic waves.

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