Mary Modeen’s latest print exhibition, The Absolutely Other, removes the observer from their immediate surroundings and deposits them in a curious version of the visual world they inhabit. Modeen’s enduring interest in space and the way we relate to it is worked through here in terms of the uncanny. Recognizable spaces jostle with others that have been half- remembered: here, the gaze is misleading, and alights not on objective locations but on memories, palimpsests.
In her introduction to the exhibition, Ciara Heeley discusses Modeen in relation to William James’ articulation of the “unseen order”, the idea that “the Absolutely Other makes tangible the feeling that we are floating above or outside of ourselves”. But the “Absolutely Other”, I would argue, is only intermittently present in Modeen’s work. Instead, the viewer is given the almost-other, the almost-strange. The prints are not quite foreign, not quite familiar. Instead, they make strange our conception of landscape, they apply dream logic that superimposes time and memory onto our conception of space. We perceive in them an “unseen order”, despite the fact that they are entirely estranged from our usual conception of space, because they give us a glimpse of coagulated time and memory, through which we can, albeit it faintly, see a path.
Modeen’s prints are, as is often the case, created from interpolated images printed in layers. Unlike other prints, these layers do not combine to create a single perspective with attendant depth. Instead, Modeen flattens any potential spatial hierarchies: the layers each require equal attention. Thus, Immersion, 2013, comprises images of boats and quays, houses and high-rises, reminiscent – but not quite identifiable as – the shore area of Leith. A comment on urban growth, perhaps? But then, as the eye adjusts to different depths, tunes its focus between layers, bubbles emerge; weed on the ship’s deck. Is the scene submerged? Or is it simply associated with water? The eye can find no final focus, the mind determines no final answer. We are kept in an intermediary state of wonder, without aiming for a resolution.
The prints are beautiful, thought provoking, lovely to linger over, but the real treasures in the exhibition are the artist’s books. Modeen’s interest in modern literature, particularly poetry, meets her artistic talents in thebooks on display. Amongst these, a collaborative work with Kathryn Gray stands out. Uncertain Territories 2010-2011 is a concertina-folded artist’s book that features poetry focused on winter themes by Kathryn Gray, with print-illustrations by Modeen. The book has pages of irregular size and shape that approximate the uneven, snowy silhouettes of trees. The colours are deep blues and greys, and cold light pierces the paper through holes cut into the pages It feels, placed in the warm sunshine of the Printmaker’s Studio, like a window opened onto blasting winter.
The delicacy and complexity of this object is reflected in the poetry. In “The Winter After”, Gray writes: “This moment is no elegy, but simple fields/ held by snows that came late last night”. The simplicity of Gray’s imagery grounds the reader: this artist’s book is the “simple field”, the place where ideas are worked out, find their echo, oscillating between the visual and the textual. Modeen’s work demonstrates the way in which a balance of words and images can create a work so coherent, that the modes blend seamlessly into one.
Produced as part of the AHRC funded “Poetry Beyond Text” project, Uncertain Territories is immediate, powerful and pleasingly complex. This exhibition is a joy to explore, and demonstrates all that is best about the combination of text and image, and the way they can conjure a response in the viewer.