A Contemporary Sublime

Photographer Mary McIntyre finds beauty in the most desolate of rural landscapes in a comprehensive exhibition at The MAC

The sublime in art is a necessarily romantic idea. It is intended as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty. Which is not to say that it cannot also be beautiful, as McIntyre’s photographs, taken from 1999 - 2011 amply prove.

This notion was first posited by John Dennis, the critic and dramatist in 1693, after a visit to the Alps in which he reported experiencing the profound beauty of nature 'mingled with horrours, and sometimes almost with despair'.

This despair in the face of an awesome and oblivious natural world permeates McIntyre's photographs currently on show in the Tall Gallery in Belfast's Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC).

McIntyre is interested in making links between paintings and photography, a contemporary reimagining, a re-imaging, of that glowering romantic sensibility, and part of the brilliance of this collection is that a selection of these cultural antecedents are also on display alongside her own work, making that relationship tangible, obvious.

LS Lowry’s 'Seascape' (1952) looks like two oppressive tonal slabs, breaking into muted detail as you approach: the dullness of a British sandbank next to a flat sea on a grey day.

'The Leaning Tree Trunk', Jean Baptiste Camille Corot


Jean Baptiste Camille Corot’s 'The Woodgatherer' (1865), meanwhile, shows a very clear relationship with McIntyre’s work. While nominally dealing with his perennial subject – agricultural workers in nature – the human figure in Corot's piece is dwarfed by tall scumbled trees, black against the yellowing sky.

While McIntyre’s previous work featured studies of human landscapes – houses and other buildings fallen into disrepair – any human presence here is ghostly and fleeting.

Her 'Forest Entrance (After Jacob Van Ruisdael)' presents us with a natural crucifix by an empty motorway. The rood tree is supported by less dozy friends, bracing it as it attempts to fall backwards in what looks like an arboreal trust exercise. Jacob Van Ruisdael’s painting, 'A pool surrounded by trees and two sportsmen coursing a hare' (1665) is also shown here.

Dark and brooding, it is nature, red in root and branch. The central oaks are echoed in the clouds above as though nature was all of a piece: protean, malleable, endlessly mutative, the figures of human and canine interlopers glimpsed through the trees are insignificant and ultimately consumable. They don’t look as if they’re going home.

McIntyre’s 'Landscape with Two Tall Trees' shows us the titular giants looming out of the gloaming, the scratchy cross-hatchery of the foreground disappearing into a hazy blue void, the blurred outlines of distant foliage fading to nothingness.

'The Mound I' shows us a lunar landscape of churned up blackened earth, pebble-dashed and barren. 'The Mound II', however, redresses the balance: a chorus line of trees shimmer into the background; a perfunctory reminder that this is where you live, that there is life here.

'The Lough V', perhaps my favourite piece, is a stark, beautiful image of a silhouetted tree growing out of the water, knotted and black in the middle, its branches delicately detailed against the grey emptiness of the Lough. It resembles a Japanese print in its seeming simplicity, scything brushstrokes on the blank canvas, ink-blot stones bevelling the foreground.

McIntyre as an artist describing nature with a broken pen nib. Her 'Veil XV' is an eerie, marshy image, latticed with broken tree branches, brittle and yellow against the cigarette-smoke blue of the morning air.

Almost, but never quite, incidentally, there is a glaring white punctum on the bottom right, a small discarded piece of white paper, a rude reminder of human beings in absentia in an empty, wicker-work world. It is positioned like a signature, a tiny reminder that these depopulated landscapes rather teem with other life.

A Contemporary Sublime runs in The MAC until January 20, 2013.

A Contemporary Sublime