Sonia Shiel’s highly imaginative mode of representational painting references the art historical lexicon of painting – early Flemish, romanticism, portraiture, surrealism and yet creates work that is distinctively her own style. The works are wilfully eccentric and play with the lines between truth and fiction. Her use of a multitude of characters creates a mélange of intimate fictions. They are drenched in narratives, creating singular vignettes that are often times humorous and absurd. Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe, a feat which was associated with dark romanticism, a sub genre of writing, was ultimately concerned with the fallibility of human nature, using imagery of anthropomorphised evil to illustrate mans inherent nature. Shiel’s work is resonant with Poe’s language of terror in the apocryphal images that they conjure, along with the compression of her works’ titles and our navigation of the space into a short poem on a nocturnal nature. Within these fictions human truths can emerge, that when constructed into an artifice, have the allusion of being both vulnerable and monstrous. Shiel’s paintings are often populated with animals and nature that serve as a poignant reminder of our fate and relationship with the elements. Being nocturnal, the certain sleep of a bee presents a respite to the fearful. The aquatic romance in the work aquatics glow (2015), illuminates the octopi, offered as a lover’s gift. The luminosity and the play of light within the works add to their fantastical nature. Light conspires with ordinary things to create a kind of supernatural gleam in works such as clouds break (2015), where light emerges from the young girls palms, or in burrows open (2015) where such illuminations highlight the centrality of colour and saturation to this body of work. Each painting is a forced nocturne, from the blind folding of subject in colour changes (2015) to the obtuse lunacy of the moon shines (2015). Darkness looms through Shiel’s skilled combination of dramatic subject matter, theatrical lighting, expressive composition and masterful handling of paint. She delivers the plight of her subject through colour and brushstroke to raise the emotional key of her composition. We are confronted by a dimension between the interior and the exterior, a pictorial device used to create a sense of alienation and anxiety. The combination of fantasy with the modern transforms the everyday. Shiel’s visual trickery includes bringing painting into sculptural form such as never rousing (2015) and creates a hyper-real sensibility, where the border between fact and fiction is blurred.
This breaking-up of compositional rules creates work that is both raw and sensual. The exploration of the carnivalesque and supernatural takes us to Shiel’s underworld. It is reminiscent of the lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven – ‘Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before’.
– Mary Cremin, independent curator