Wallflowers Essay by Sinead Gleeson
As the world ground to a halt in 2020, artist Gemma Browne was determined to keep moving. In an effort to stick to routines-and bound by a 2km limit-she walked the streets of her neighbourhood. Life slowed down and Browne found herself paying close attention to houses, in particular the windows and gardens. Focusing on small details helped offset the magnitude of our collective experience in a global pandemic.
Wallflowers is an attempt to engage with living through a period of huge upheaval and coming through it. As Browne walked the suburbs, redbrick houses and lace-curtained windows came into sharp focus. The work teems with flowers, particularly roses, a symbol of secrecy. Despite the vivid blues, greens and pinks-on closer inspection-something darker lurks on these canvases: disembodiment, seclusion, the ghosts of lives lived before 2020.
Browne`s work has always featured faces-mask-like or dolls-but many of these paintings are not just faceless, but are without a corporeal body. This disembodiment evokes the disconnection and isolation of lockdown, while the antique dresses in 'Finest', 'Debutante' and 'Sunday', are-literally-all dressed up with nowhere to go. 'None of us were dancing at the dance', says Browne , but these figures look ready to remerge into the world, to a newly reclaimed sociability. The bygone attire is an echo of the time before everything changed . Browne's canvases vary in size: some are large and demonstrative while the smaller works hint at more introspective moments.
'Wallflowers' the painting which gives the exhibition its title-depicts roses climbing against red brick, and Browne imagined a doll-like figure behind it. Rather than the trapped woman of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, this woman is an active observer, curious and engaged .
The show title Wallflowers offers a duality: a lonely woman at the dance, and the figurative garden plants emblematic of thriving despite the pandemic. Much of Browne's past work is interior, situating her subjects inside, representing the gendered division of domestic labour and caring responsibilities. The female figures of this collection are out in the world, making the most of what urban nature-grass verges, roses, birds-is available to them. Outside, they have agency and autonomy.
Houses, once considered places of sanctuary, now epitomise confinement. in Ireland, the home is always political , and in 'House Show' and 'This Arcane House', we only see the facade, possibly hinting at ongoing issues of dereliction in a housing crisis, and how we can never know what goes on behind closed doors.
Browne describes herself as 'an emotional, not a conceptual artist'. in vivid, playful shades, Wallflowers captures the hopeful and political subtext of our post-pandemic world.