The Black Mirror
Reflecting on Gareth Reid's Ava Gallery exhibition
An enduring concept in art history, at its most practical the 'black mirror' has been used by artists since before the 17th century. The landscape painters of the time used the device to reflect the scenes they painted, the dull glass filtering light to aid the artist's judgement of the tones and colours in a scene.
In using the apparatus to gauge the quality and light, it was believed that a more picturesque, accurate and natural representation could be produced. The Black Mirror is Gareth Reid's third solo show at the Ava Gallery and his largest and most substantial to date.
Across 18 pictures, acrylic on board, Reid presents life, landscape and taxidermy, confirming the technical mastery that won the Travel Award at the BP Portrait Prize in London, while developing his subject matter beyond the human face.
As described in Dr Alexander Kennedy's foreword to the exhibition catalogue, the show's title links to a chain of references that stretch back into prehistory. The obsidian mirrors of the Aztecs, polished and prized, could only ever reflect a selection of the world, suggesting that the mirrors that are taken for granted in the modern world may too only offer a partial representation of what we call reality.
The pupil of the eye, black because its tissue absorbs the light of the world, is the filter through which we visually experience external phenomena. The involuntary constriction and dilation regulates what we see and how we see it, growing wider when an object or idea of interest is presented. Reid's apparently oppositional diptychs offer the viewer just such an opportunity, to play third party in the process of meaning-making and at the very least, to raise an eyebrow.
A young girl's portrait is presented alongside a square of sea, forcing a cursory consideration of what the differences, or similarities, might be. The largest paintings 'Landmark' and 'Landscape' play games with the senses of scale and proportion. Presented beside one another, viewers are simultaneously inside the forest and above, the contrasting perspectives raising an awareness of occupying a space while being viewed from without, of observing and being observed.
The Ava Gallery, found in a spacious second-storey loft conversion in the grounds of Bangor's Clandeboye Estate, is making efforts to reduce the viewer's sense of self and self-awareness when it moves to its new premises across the courtyard, with the new gallery floors constructed from rubber to reduce the all too real clack of footstep and heel.
Reid's 'Museum' series of paintings give the initial impression of being crack snaps of still life, 'Museum I' seeming to capture mammals at play.
Allowing the scene to move into life, these could be beasts at in action, grazing among the leaves of one of his landscapes or in the trees surrounding Clandeboye's courtyard.
Progressing through the numbers, though, a more accurate interpretation (if we may talk of such things) may be that a regression or linear reversal is taking place, that what can be seen is life moving into stillness, ending with the rarefied bones of a monster hung from the girders of an imaginary exhibition space.
The grounds of the Estate were once popular with Bangor poachers who, sneaking amongst the foliage, would strip bramble and tall, flexible branches that grew amongst the brush, bending them to ground level with a circular noose wieghted on the forest floor.
Into the ring was placed bait that when gobbled by credulous pheasants would release the trap which, cartoon-style, would swiftly snap vertically, secreting the deceased within the bush until nightfall when the crafty huntsmen would retrieve their carrion.
This practise ended when much of the Estate was handed to the Ulster Trust, the last Game & County Fair taking place a generation ago.
Reid says that it was important that the faces featuring in Black Mirror's portraits were from the same family, for reasons both visual and conceptual.
Although the images ('Family', I,II & III) are not presented next to one another in the gallery space, the familiarity provided by the real genetic link in the subjects is an important factor, as are the invisible emotional bonds shared between the young lady, man and father.
The presentation of the images creates a deliberate contrast and Reid admits a certain anxiety that when purchased, the order as he knows it will be disturbed.
By virtue of their size, larger than any of the others, 'Landscape' and 'Landmark' are the most arresting. In terms of size, Reid imagines that in the future more of his work will go this way.
One of the mid-sized paintings, 'Sunset', evokes the largest sense of perceptual space. An easy streak of sunlight stretches from board edge to board edge, licking trees in the foreground and back, suggesting a horizon and sunlit path that reaches beyond the gallery, across the bell tower of the courtyard and over the water beyond Bangor Marina.
This small section of expertly-blended colour reveals what is already present, which we rarely see.
That Reid is a masterful technician is beyond question. The content of Black Mirror and diversity of interpretations the exhibition raises are the kicker in his hand.
For when considering linear conceptions of history, lifelines and how little we seem to actually see, the experience is almost spiritual; sublime in the simultaneously contradictory sense if the word. For at once the realisation comes that everything might be nothing, and nothing all.
Visit Gareth Reid's website for information on his latest exhibitions.