Catherine Marshall traces the artistic odyssey of the inimitable Maria Simonds-Gooding
In 2008, a number of people got together and hatched a plan to mark Maria Simonds-Gooding's seventieth birthday in 2009, and her contribution to the West Kerry Gaeltacht, by holding a celebratory exhibition of her work in Ionad an Bhlascaoid. That plan, expanded and developed, is now coming to fruition and the exhibition, 'Ceiliuradh Mhaire Mhaith' - The Art of Maria Simonds-Gooding, will run from Easter through to October 2011, in true Irish fashion, only two years after the birthday in question. When you pass seventy it might be assumed that the most important works in your artistic career now come from the past. Nobody then had any notion that the artist would have perfected a really exciting new direction in her art practice but the last two RHA exhibitions revealed a new Simonds Gooding, one capable in her eighth decade of producing some of the most completely original work in those shows.
Because of her colourful lifestyle, living in a restored stone cottage facing out to the Blaskets, travelling all over the four continents from the mountain valleys in Bhutan to the desert of Mali, painting and sketching alone on Inis Mhicileain or the Blaskets, with only a diet of fish and snared rabbit to keep her going, it is virtually impossible to imagine her, air-masked and goggled, sealed up in a protective space-age white suit, as she powers away at her newest discovery. Simonds-Gooding is now working, not with paint, plasterwork or ink, but with sheets of aluminium and a variety of tools ranging from an electronic drill (her new pencil) to domestic steel wool instead of a set of brushes, to produce what is almost like the undeveloped photographic negative of her familiar plasterworks. Except that to use the word negative is already to introduce a jarring note. The aluminium works give expression to the hitherto invisible aura surrounding those mysterious spaces, enclosures and water holes. Where previously the boundary line took precedence, now it is the effect of light on the naked surface of the metal that is the subject. No reproduction can do justice to the constant changes the light brings to this work as you move in relation to it or as the natural light changes direction. It is as if something invisible has mysteriously emerged from the void, to shimmer and hover before your gaze, only to sink back into the geological and historical context from whence it came. The images of fields and water holes appear like the mirages of desperate people tramping through the desert in search of an oasis.
Since Simonds-Gooding's work has always been concerned with the most primitive and desperate signs of human occupation in the least tameable parts of the earth's surface, these intangible images become incredibly moving. Yet, despite the space-age suit and the new technology, the spiritual element in this new work connects directly with her earliest artwork. Images like her 1974 print, Tigh na h-Inise seems at first sight, to concentrate on the solid, backside to the wind, impregnability of the house, grey stone piled relentlessly on to grey stone, grey slate above. Only then your eye is drawn upward by the only moving thing, the curving line of smoke from the chimney, and suddenly you are floating in another world, like the islands that hover above the silent house. It is at once Nirvana or Tir na n6g, ever present but unreachable. The combination of the solid and the ethereal in this work perfectly anticipates the contrast between the plasterworks and the dreams that she now conjures out of steel and aluminium. The idea of using sheets of metal as a ground for painterly activity is not new. In the Middle Ages and the 17th century, the use of copper supports for painting was not unusual and was exploited by artists as a more glowing surface than their regular wood or canvas, but there cannot be too many precedents in fine art for this initiative by Simonds-Gooding. Her use of this material, inspired not by that painting tradition but by seeing the beauty of the metal plates from which her carborundum prints were made, reveals rather than covers its potential. Linking her to the farmers whose traces she celebrates, it is her fertile ground.