by Leontia Flynn
A grassy dome littered with tiny flowers sits in the middle of an earthy path. The scale, at first, is confusing: is this a small mountain, or raked leaves in a garden? A plastic shark and an orange ball balance, equally improbably, on irregular, glassy waves in what must be a paddling pool, or part of a child’s toy. Yet real and imitation wave patterns contradict each other and this – along with what seems to be heavy weather engulfing the foreground – confuses the eye and gives us pause for thought.
These deceptive images are part of Clare Gallagher’s series Domestic Drift, and like many here they point in two directions at once. They both acknowledge the repetitive and unremarkable nature of domestic experience, and point to the capacity of such experience to provide moments of lyricism, humour and imaginative intensity. Domestic experience in this context means not just housework but childcare. The children in question are figured in an up-close, fragmented way, which serves to suggest the de-centred nature of Gallagher’s ‘drift’. Often – as when a pair of (presumably unoccupied) Wellington boots poke from beneath a wooden gate, a crack or fault-line snaking away from them across cement flags – they highlight a clear preoccupation with thresholds. Yet any expected association of ‘outside’ with wildness or freedom, in contrast to a confined interior, is refreshingly overturned in these conjunctions. The face peering in, humorously, through the glass of a back door, is in fact that of a little boy. When a child’s silhouetted hand is seen stretching away from the foreground, it is only its gesture, pressing against the barely perceptible, rainedon window, which lets us know we’re on the inside – and yet rather than claustrophobic, the image is one of yearning and imaginative power. Also suggestive and funny on the topic of confinement and escape, is the photograph of what seems to be a ladder, drawn in crayon, on the wall beneath a small high window. On second glance, the window is perhaps a mirror. Whoever climbs this make-believe ladder, would therefore see only her own face, reflected in the gloomy interior. Though – who knows ? – in a day of de-centred drift, this moment of self-definition may represent another sharp glimmer of freedom.
Everywhere, then, Gallagher’s images suggest how the extraordinary is implicated with the ordinary, the lyrical with the oppressive. On a leaf-patterned bedroom wall, shadows from the window cast another leafy frieze. We can hardly tell one from the other; the shadow tree sprouts wallpaper flowers. In this way, the apparently ‘private’ space of these photographs is shown to be forever subject to and mixed up with the wider world. The cyclical nature of domesticity, and its accumulation of small mundane tasks, is acknowledged in a way which does not preclude lifting a moment from the series, and focussing on it with surprising clarity. The pile of leaves in the garden may need to be raked again another day, but for now it looks pretty. Post-it notes fixed to a fridge suggest a to-do list extending into the future, but with the moment arrested, work suspended, the image is allowed to become not a niggling reminder of things to be accomplished, but something rather beautiful. It is my favourite image here, and as with many of these photographs it has a particular kind of light that I like very much. It is an ordinary, mid-day, indoors kind of light, which in some photographs gives way to deeper evening light. It evokes not just the drift of what we now call care-giving, but the drift of days in childhood, memorialised in those hazy orange photos from the seventies. The dull, perilous, endless and wide-reaching days, that is, whose concerns are inseparable from those we like to think of as the ‘outside world’.