Under a huge and luminous pearly sky a young girl strains at a taut rope, heaving a great white bag of some heavy matter across a snow-spattered field. A blur of some cheerful pink stuff on top of the bag is the only colour in the wintry waste. The rope is almost exactly parallel to the horizon, the girl pulls left towards the third section of the composition, while the converging lines churned by the plough meet at a leafless tree in the middle distance. In another picture a girl stands, face averted, framed by the whale-like inverted ribs of an opalescent polytunnel. Here and there discarded pots, tubes and very dead plants mess up the dominating foreground. The girl’s remarkable ash-coloured hair and her pale clothes echo the pallor of the polythene in contrast to the scruffy disorder around her as she stands apparently sealed into a disused greenhouse.
Frances Kearney, Untitled III from the series ‘Running Wild’ 2013, © the artist
Kearney’s new series of develops themes and images explored in her 2009 series ‘Fishing for Trout’, in which girls on the cusp of puberty play in the landscape. Away alone in the wild, on the marsh, in a derelict industrial site, each girl looks as though she is caught up in a deep state of solitary dreaming, possibly talking out loud to invisible people, self-sufficient in her preoccupation. She will have a prop – stilts, a barrow, a dead seal – and odd clothes (is that a squirrel costume?) but she will mainly be engaged in being on her own in her imagination.
The Project Space in Norwich Castle Museum has been painted a deep stormcloud grey, and sits within the collection of Norwich Castle among Norfolk landscape painters such as Cotman and Munnings, placing Norfolk-born Kearney in a historic context. Some visual echoes occur between the paintings and Kearney’s photographs – a child shepherd on a heath, a ruined industrial agricultural landscape, great waters and big skies. Kearney stresses that she is an artist who uses photography, not a photographer.
The adult viewer, prompted by modern life to be anxious, at the same time remembers their own free-range childhoods, playing out in the wild all day long and only back home at dusk, muddy but happy. There are hints of threat – the dereliction of the sites, made by adults then abandoned; the compositional device of lines that pin the child by strong horizontals and diagonals like a butterfly in the centre stage, the bleak almost monotone palate, so unjolly. Many of these games look like imposed fairy-tale tasks – hauling heavy objects, sitting high up like Rapunzel in a concrete wall or on a straw mound near a strange bit of military hardware.The girls are almost dwarfed by the great brooding skies which withhold rain, while practically no living plants give a hint of life to the land. They are playing in a silvery half-place of imminent rain, makeshift defences and infinite waters.
The wistful loneliness of the locations and the weepy palette suggest that one’s memories of childhood landscapes as being long yellow beaches, dancing blue waves are not the places where fruitful dreaming actually happens. These ‘real’ liminal locations that no-one else occupies provide landscapes that make you dream, where the action is your own, where nothing is provided except a backdrop.
by Stephanie Douet, visual artist
Artist: Frances Kearney
Title: ‘Running Wild’
Venue: Colman Project Space, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Castle Meadow, Norwich NR1 3J0 01603 495897
Dates: Saturday 5 October 2013 – Sunday 23 March 2014
Attribution: Frances kearney, Untitled 111 from the series ‘Running Wild’ 2013, copyright the artist