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Mind the Matter

By Greg Thomas, 03.11.2021
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Moyna Flannigan, Past/Present, 2021. Photograph: John McKenzie. Courtesy of the Artist and Ingleby, Edinburgh

Moyna Flannigan (born 1963) has been an enigmatic and witty presence within Scottish painting for several decades. Her metier is portraiture, but with the significant twist that her portraits are of no-one. Or rather, like the digital composite faces created by contemporary advertising, Flannigan’s subjects are imaginary but her source material is real: the features of remembered acquaintances and connections, images from contemporary culture, magazines, imaginative renderings of book characters, and so on.

In her 2004 show Once Upon Our Time at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Flannigan showed delicate vellum miniatures of 50 make-believe characters alongside pieces from the museum’s historic collection, emphasising a tendency to register oblique commentary on social paradigms, particularly expectations of femininity across times and cultures. Indeed, many of the artist’s portraits are of lonely or solitary-seeming women. Her formal approach, meanwhile, registers the influence of Alberto Giacometti’s emaciated figures and insectoid sculpture, but with a disorienting collage effect more akin to Surrealism or post-Cubism. There is also a lissom, fashion-illustration quality to many of her female forms that is at once satirical and curiously threatening (a hint of Cruella De Vil or the cartoon femme fatale).

Flannigan explains that the title of her present show, Matter, “seemed to suggest lots of different things. Physical matter, for example the canvas, pigment, paper, plaster and bronze that forms the work, but it’s also a word we use a great deal in the English language, so ‘no laughing matter, ‘the heart of the matter’ or ‘is something the matter?’” This was eighteen months ago, at the height of Covid-19 lockdown, when the word seemed “particularly pertinent [as] lots of things have been a matter for concern.”

Installation view of Moyna Flannigan’s solo exhibition MATTER, Ingleby, Edinburgh. Photograph: John McKenzie. Courtesy of the Artist and Ingleby, Edinburgh.

There is also a nod here, perhaps, to the physical matter of collage, a medium that Flannigan has been working with increasingly intensively over the last few years, as evidenced by a recent show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. But there is maybe too some ironic avowal of the immaterial subject-matter at hand. What we see is not an approximation of anything that was ever “matter,” in that sense of the word. The world revealed is, nonetheless, one with definite and distinctive features. Spiky-haired figures in platform heels, dressed almost like go-go dancers, sachet, stretch, and click their fingers in front of backgrounds littered with post-pop detritus. Silhouettes of Marilyn Monroe’s face; cars and planes mid-cruise or flight; fragments of architecture and body parts; a characteristically lurid, almost whimsically adolescent purple and red colour palette.

Several of the works on display, such as Past/Present – in which many of the above motifs can be found – are recreated across sizes and as both paintings and collages, suggesting the insistency with which the conceptual matter impressed itself on the artist’s mind. Indeed, this recycling of images from piece to piece suggests an interesting avenue of development in the painter’s oeuvre. The most arresting works on display are not wall-based at all, however, but little plaster maquettes of spindly female bodies placed on plinths. Twisted Sister is like the Venus of Willendorf reimagined by Giacometti, the contrast between stick arms and legs and the fecund excess of breasts and thighs giving the sculpture its weird and disconcerting energy. Across three further plinths we find similar figures: one has a missing head, another jazzily crosses its legs; at least two seem to be dancing, forming a thematic link back to the work in two dimensions. It all almost fits together, but what that fitting together tells us about the world beyond the gallery is perhaps the question. Not anything in particular but perhaps not nothing either. Something matters here.

Moyna Flannigan, Matter, runs at the Ingleby Gallery until 18th December.