CORK artist Mags Geaney says her fascination with painting faces is because, as an adopted child, she is always looking for a resemblance, a family connection.
Mags met her biological mother in 2000 and created an exhibition inspired by that momentous event. Now, the artist has an exhibition at the Sternview Gallery entitled Penumbra, which means shadow. It was supposed to have been shown last September but Mags’s adoptive mother died in April, 2018. Her grief for her mother is still quite raw.
“My mother would have been my muse for many years,” says Mags, chatting over coffee in Nash 19, which is attached to the gallery.
“I suppose my work is really about my two mothers.”
When her adoptive mother had a stroke about ten years ago, Mags created an exhibition that reflected her mother’s love of fashion. It made such an impact that some of it was put on show in the window of Brown .
Mags’s current exhibition, which continues until November 2, is a series of faces, mostly of women, with often haunting eyes as well as eyes that are deep pools of emotion. Inspired by fashion magazine photographs and newspaper shots, Mags is interested in mass media imagery, particularly celebrity portraiture.
“Through celebrity portraits, we’re presented with a certain image which is about glitz, glamour and success. They capture one side of a person which is the mask. It’s the shadow that is revealed in the eyes of the portrait that really interests me. I reinterpret or reinvigorate that, which is the dark underbelly.”
None of Mags’s portraits on show in the gallery are posed.
“I never really work from the life model. If I don’t have a personal connection with the model, then I don’t want to paint the person. I’m interested in photographs that speak to me, that spark off something in me. It could be something psychological. I think we always meet images with our own preconceptions. I like to take something that’s very manufactured and directed by a photographer. It’s always transformed by the act of painting because even if one was to do a completely hyper-realistic interpretation, it’s always an interpretation.
“I might start off almost aping the photograph and then I like to destroy it. I might drag a brush over it so I’d have something photo-realist and then I completely change that. What I’m searching for is the quality of shadow, what is being revealed behind the mask.”
The most striking painting in the exhibition is a large portrait of a woman whose enormous eyes seem to follow the viewer in the room, a bit like the Mona Lisa. The title of it is Her Dark Materials — All that Glitters.
“All the titles in this exhibition are cover lines from magazines. The exhibition is an amalgamation of different magazine covers that I’ve worked from. The eyes following you is something that’s said to me a lot about my portraits. I’m interested in the gaze. In feminist theory, there’s the idea of the male gaze (the way women are depicted in visual art and cinema from the male heterosexual perspective.)”
The artist that influences Mags the most is the photographer, Diane Arbus.
“I adore her work. She really sought out the underbelly of society and then created beautiful provocative photographs.
“The gaze is such that it’s almost like the viewer is looking at the work and being watched by it at the same time.”
Mags’s mother-in-law died two months before her mother passed away. She painted a number of faces shortly after her loss. She recalls the particular work she did at this time.
“It was like I was almost looking into the abyss of grief. This is my first exhibition without mum being around. She was a great support to me. Her death connected me with my own mortality. The adoptive mother is of paramount importance. I know that every mother is. Three of the paintings in the exhibition are really about missing mum. They’re called The Revenant, Souvenir and Prometheus Bound. They’re permeated with grief. The palate got very dark when I was painting them. It’s very hard to quantify the effect of grief on oneself.
“In the aftermath of my mother’s death, I found myself sitting in the studio painting, being really upset and wondering what it’s all about.”
The exhibition is, says Mags, “in a strange way similar to Tryst, the exhibition I did inspired by my birth mother.
“There was the bitter sweet nature of an adult daughter meeting her birth mother. To be adopted in Ireland is to be a second class citizen. There is no access to basic information like medical information. You’re not granted the right to it.”
Mags, who has an eight-year-old daughter, says her work taps into whatever emotional state she is in.
“It’s not only trauma and pain. It’s also beauty and life, resilience and love.”