Talent 2010: The artist, Gemma Gallagher

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The Independent Culture

Any work of art involves quite deliberate acts of deception.

When I first saw a painting by Belfast-born Gemma Gallagher at Camberwell College of Art's degree show in the summer of 2009, I thought that I was in the presence of a fairly benign seascape of some kind. I could see long, dark objects receding away from me, as if afloat on water. When I drew a little closer, I discovered, with a slight sense of wonder and fascination mixed with revulsion, that these were guns. Black and long, they looked like a strange flotilla of sea craft from the Second World War.

Gemma Gallagher was born in north Belfast in 1987, and her paintings conjure up a world – now, happily, receding from view - forever likely to be undermined by acts of violence. Being just twenty-two years of age, it is not a violence that she has known personally, but it is a violence known from stories, poems, newsreels, neighbourly tittle-tattle and song, and all these elements get woven into her paintings, which are both visually ravishing and deeply troubling. The painting which I have described is called 'A Terrible Beauty is Born', and that is a line from a great poem by W.B. Yeats called 'Easter 1916', which commemorates the heroes of the Rising. But were they really nothing but heroes? There is moral ambiguity in Yeats' words. What cannot be denied is that the names of those who are associated with that event resonate down the years. And so it is with Gemma Gallagher's paintings.

Last year she staged an exhibition in Belfast's notorious Crumlin Road Gaol – now closed – in order, in part, all the better to confront the history that surrounds her. Her paintings manage to combine a fanciful lightness with a brooding acknowledgement of the inescapably brutal past of her native city.