With its plush interiors and leafy forest surroundings, the Higgin Gallery in Malone House feels like an apt home for John McSorley’s latest exhibition, This Moment.
As has come to be expected of the Lisburn-born artist, this latest series of paintings blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality, bringing to mind a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, or an illustrated Tolkien tome.
The moonlit fields of ‘Enchanted Hill’ – which is arguably the highlight of the exhibition – typify McSorley’s ability to imbue the Northern Irish landscape with an otherworldly quality. Yet there are urban scenes also, and even a rare self portrait.
Ethereal moonscapes and azure sunsets are viewable through dancing branches; tiny human figures, often alone, survey their grandiose surroundings. Earthly boundaries are even traversed in the likes of ‘Beneath The Milky Way’, a relatively diminutive canvas depicting a breathtakingly detailed star cluster towering above a tranquil rural scene.
While the majority of paintings feature local scenes such as Downpatrick Cathedral (bathed in an orange glow, surrounded by twinkling stars) or a chill winter dawn in Strangford, it is unsurprising that the well-travelled McSorley has also taken inspiration from further afield in pieces like ‘Moonlight on the Loire’ and a rare interior in the uncharacteristically minimal ‘The French Dining Room’.
The sense of the natural world dwarfing humanity prevails, however, and is a recurring theme in McSorley’s work, although it is expressed in a reassuringly comforting way. McSorley the romantic is not threatened by urbanisation in the same way that Wordsworth was.
On the rare occasion that characters are present in his paintings, they are invariably on the fringes and very small indeed, often obscured by the dominating scenery. For instance, a Connemara fisherman casts off in one piece (which features an admirable sense of depth and texture) while young lovers cuddle under a blanket by the bay in another, taking in the same picture of serenity as the viewer.
For this reason the title of the exhibition seems particularly appropriate – these works can be seen as snapshots in time, fleeting moments captured, enjoyed by their subjects as much as their audience.
While rural landscapes are largely McSorley’s raison d'etre, there are exceptions. These include a cosmopolitan scene of boardwalk coffee-drinkers illuminated by fairy lights and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, a large self-portrait, which is on sale for £2,000 – a significant jump up from the rest of the pieces, which range from £350 to £800.
Comparatively realistic, this is a rare insight into the artist’s creative environment. We see him through stained glass windows, casually painting in civies, replete with trendy trainers. Paintings of his native Strangford Lough are visible in the background.
However, while the interesting juxtaposition of this piece serves to break up the exhibition, the style for which the auteur is better known is arguably more engaging, and skylines and landscapes remain his forte. Some may consider McSorley’s work to be too whimsical. Even for the harshest of critics, however, This Moment is sure to raise a smile on a cold autumnal afternoon.
This Moment runs in the Higgin Gallery until November 3, 2012. The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues until November 4.