Reviews & Essays


December 2015: Irish Times, The Gloss


March 23rd 2015: The Art of Scientific Exploration by Cathy Dillon:



June 5th 2014: Siobhan McDonald Paints like a geologist by Dick Ahlstrom


August 20th 2013: Iceland is like a blank canvas by Kevin Courtney




Iceland is a blank canvas, The work of Siobhan McDonald

Irish Times September 2013 by Kevin Courtney

Earlier this month, an Irish team of scientists from University College Dublin set off on an expedition to the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland. They were leaving a rare warm Irish summer to spend a couple of weeks in a remote, cold, windswept region about a 2½-hour drive from Reyjavik.

Their mission? To place an array of seismometers along the flanks of Grimsvotn, an active volcano that sits at the edge of the glacier, and record the tremors and rumbles that occur deep below the glacial ice. The idea is that by listening closely to the “heartbeat” of Grimsvotn, the team might learn more about the inner workings of the volcano, and perhaps gain some useful information to help detect the early signs of an eruption.

The trip is part of Futurevolc, an international project funded by the European Commission to try to improve the monitoring and evaluation of volcanic hazards. Iceland is a rich source of such hazards, as the rest of Europe discovered in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano spewed out a giant ash cloud that brought massive disruption to air travel. The volcano being explored by the UCD team erupted a year after Eyjafjallajokull, but its ash cloud headed off east, sparing Europe, and thus making fewer headlines.

“We want to be able to distinguish between is the volcano becoming active or is it just water activity or is the glacier moving,” says Dr Aoife Braiden, from the school of geological sciences at UCD. “When Grimsvotn last erupted, the lava took 2½ hours to melt through the ice before it became visible. Having all the information early on can make a big difference when you’re evacuating a region affected by volcanic activity.”

To get on this team, you need to be well-versed in volcanology, a specialist in seismology or have a grounding in geology. Or you could simply have a talent for creating beautiful art from the apparent desolation of this region of Iceland. For this trip, the team brought along the artist Siobhán McDonald, who is artist-in-residence at the science building in UCD.

Her mission? To listen to the volcano, gather information and harvest inspiration for an exhibition and sound piece. And maybe uncover some hitherto unseen connections between Iceland’s volcanic activity and Ireland’s weather patterns down through the centuries.

A shade of Eyjafjallajokull
McDonald’s love affair with Iceland began when she was cycling through Dublin in 2010 with a new painting she had just finished, and which hadn’t completely dried yet. By the time she arrived at her destination, her painting was covered in a layer of soft ash, the fallout from Eyjafjallajokull.

When everyone else was trying to get away from the ash cloud, she wanted to get closer to this forbidding but fascinating landscape.

“I wanted to experience all that whiteness and put it in my paintings,” she says. “Iceland is constantly erasing and recreating itself – it’s like a blank canvas. It’s inspiring for me as a painter.”

Over the past couple of years, McDonald has made a few trips to Iceland and put her impressions down on canvas. The landscape may look barren, but for McDonald it is alive with possibilities. And there is life aplenty if you look and listen closely enough. It’s utterly quiet and peaceful on an Icelandic glacier. It’s also very cold, with a biting wind, in stark contrast to the unusually warm summer we have had.

“All the senses are muffled,” says McDonald. “You’re in a completely different headspace. There are no sounds up here except the sounds generated by the wind or the odd bird or fly going by. You’re aware of the raw energy of the place and how the natural forces gather there.”

Now that this expedition has ended, the next task is to go through the data, analyse it and try to make sense of it. The seismometers left by the UCD team will continue to generate information, which will be recorded and pored over by Braiden and the rest of the team.

Meanwhile, McDonald will be using the sounds, sights, soil samples and light impressions she has gathered to generate a new series of paintings.

An exhibition is planned for the Fenderesky Gallery in Belfast later this year. She will also be collaborating with the composer Susan Stenger, who has worked with John Cage, to create a special sound piece based on the deepcore data from the Icelandic glacier.

Populations at risk

The data gathered by the UCD team will have applications wherever volcanic activity poses a threat to the local community, such as in Italy, where Vesuvius and Etna are still considered a threat to the large populations living in their shadow.

“You can’t prevent an eruption, but if we know more about what’s going on inside a volcano, we might be able to minimise risk and vulnerability,” says Dr Braiden.

If, by chance, the UCD team doesn’t manage to develop an early-warning system for volcanic eruptions, McDonald may be able to help. During her research, she met local people living in these remote parts of Iceland, and found they had a knack for knowing when volcanic activity was stepping up in the area. And one of the most reliable early-warning systems, says McDonald, are common-or-garden ravens.

“I’ve been gathering stories from people who live around the Vatnajökull region, and they told me how the ravens communicate with folk by tapping on the windows, like a Morse code, to warn of an imminent eruption. Many of these folk are third-generation volcano dwellers, with a highly tuned-in ability to feel the planetary waves.”

Scientific palette: Art, Dev and the Jesuits

Siobhán McDonald takes a scientific approach to creating her art, which chimes with her status as artist-in-residence in UCD’s science building. For her previous project ,The Eye of the Storm, McDonald visited Tom Blake, director of the Irish National Seismic Network in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies’ school of cosmic physics, to discuss the Earth’s geology and structure.

“He brought me down to the basement – where Dev once hid – and showed me a collection of seismograms made by the Jesuits in the early 20th century. It was an incredible find – these scrolls had been sitting there for years, and they didn’t know what to do with them.”

To make the seismograms, the Jesuit scientists used a paper-blackening technique that is now all but forgotten. McDonald travelled to Göttingen, Germany, to visit one of the few seismic stations left in the world that still uses the process, and studied the technique, which she now uses as part of her work.

McDonald has been commissioned to create a work to be permanently displayed at the entrance to the new Science Centre at UCD.

Futurevolc is coordinated by the University of Iceland and the Iceland Met Office.

Prof Chris Bean is the UCD lead. Siobhan McDonald is collaborating with Prof Chris Bean this year in the making of a sound piece together with the Internationally acclaimed composer Susan Stenger.



Eye of the Storm

Tim Robinson, March 14th 2012

Somewhere on the further side of the globe, two of the tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s crust and that carry the continents and the oceans are locked against one another, unable to move in response to the slow convection currents in the magma on which they rest. Tension builds, for decades, for centuries. Then great thicknesses of rock rupture and the plates lurch onwards, accomplishing a few more feet or yards of their blind journey. The shock generates pressure waves that radiate through the interior of the Earth, where they may be reflected off or pass through the inner core, a solid sphere of iron and nickel some 1500 miles across.

There are sheer waves too, that shake the rock from side to side like a dog with a rat; they cannot pass through liquids such as the molten rock of the outer core, so take their way through the crust and the plastic but near-solid magma of the mantle. Both types of waves also travel around the surface of the globe, causing the ground to roll like a slow-motion ocean and to shudder laterally in a way that near the epicentre of the earthquake can topple cities. These various waves interfere with one another and sound out the earth’s fundamental frequencies, and are eventually attenuated by distance until only the most delicate of instruments can detect them.

Before electronics, seismographs used to be elaborate constructions of balanced levers, as poised and focused and skeletal as a praying mantis, that translated the relative displacement of a weight and the casing from which it was suspended into the oscillations of a beak-like pen across the moving surface of a roll of smoked paper; thus an earthquake in Chile or China could inscribe itself into the scientific record by displacing grains of soot a world away. Perhaps an artist, decades later, will transpose the fragile roll into a context that licences new interpretations of its obscure earth-script.

The Earth’s crust is currently unzipping itself, and has been doing so for over a hundred million years, as the plates bearing Europe and the Americas move apart and allow lavas from deep in the mantle to well up and solidify between them, creating the mid-Atlantic ridge. Iceland sits astride of this nine-thousand-mile-long submarine mountain range; hence the island’s hot springs and volcanoes. Near one of these volcanoes lies the husk of a crashed 1950’s Dakota DC3. Over the years it has been layered with volcanic ash; it is on the way to being fossilized. The DC3, once the workhorse of the air transport industry, has been described as ‘a collection of parts flying in loose formation’. Here the formation is slowly degraded as parts drop off, building up a two-dimensional reduction of their previous three-dimensional order on the frozen ground.

Corrosion has opened up numerous piercings in the pitiful hulk. The sun, millions of miles away, blasts forth unimaginable numbers of photons in all directions, enough of which pass through these holes to let it leave its thumbprints on the interior of the plane. As the world turns, these wafers of light creep along the empty fusilage, fade, and are dispensed again with the next unclouded morning. The weightless parade is fractionally different every day as the sun’s track arches higher in the sky with spring and shrinks down again with the coming of winter. The artist observes, records, relates. Since the Cosmos and all that’s in it were born of a singularity, all things are related. The task of the artist is to trace the lines of this universal cousinage.


Time Regained

Rachael Thomas, Head of Exhibitions, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats (1) 

In these lines written in 1920, W.B. Yeats meditates on the history of the world – its past, its present and ultimately its future. As a member of the cross-over generation that had witnessed the dying of the optimistic 19th century and the birth of the cynical modern age in World War I, Yeats was all too well placed to consider the cycles of human history. This passage announces a new world order, all the more resonant as we fly forth into the early stages of our new century which has already seen a shift in global economic and political power. In his apocalyptic vision of the future, Yeats creates a bittersweet tone with his depictions of the violent vitality and vibrations of the natural world. Echoing Yeats’s methods, the artist Siobhán McDonald explores the natural world as a pathway, playfully seeking to explore the interplay between the landscape and its representation.

From the beginning, McDonald’s art has been predicated on the natural landscape. The role and function itself of painting, especially in her beautiful handling, affirms her landscapes as being mythic and romantic sites. Siobhán McDonald’s practice is transplanted to the stage of current cultural history, upon which she comments on tradition and influence. By dissolving boundaries between landscape and seascape, surface and image, McDonald creates a certain dystopia. Perhaps this is why the tendency toward nostalgia so often seems to inhabit her art; this narrative of nostalgia is key to understanding the motivation of her work.

The series of works shown here are based on her experiences of the natural landscape in Venice last summer. The use of multimedia and her ‘mapping’ of the city signifies the liminality of historical architectural space of certain districts of Venice and the surrounding lagoons. The layering of scanned images of old maps (sometimes reimagined in Photoshop) with fluid paint, etchings and rubbings-out create a visual tension that hints at the delicate balancing act Venice has always represented.

‘The promise of ruin has been one of the greatest inspirations to Western art.’ (2)

Today Venice is seen as elegantly decaying ruin. McDonald’s mixed-media paintings and series of found woodblocks remind me of impressionistic memoirs of the 18th-century Grand Tours of Venice and Rome. Nevertheless she is recording a disappearing world. The paintings’ similarity to the jewel-like illuminated miniatures of the late middle ages in their unabashed celebration of beauty masks the reality of the landscape’s stoic acceptance of its own erosion and ruin. For Venice is drowning. The recent ‘acqua alta’ (high water) in Venice last week reached a depth of 1.56 metres (5’1”), the deepest flood in 22 years, and the fourth-highest flood level in recent history.

‘In works such as untitled 1, the colours of the blue lagoon seem to rhythmically reclaim the picture plane by enveloping the architecture. Thus, the painting becomes an allegory of the present social and environmental status of the cityscape. This is further cultivated in untitled 2, where the transient and ephemeral become fixed in a highly refined manner. We see faint lines that fill the picture (from a seismograph). Reminiscent of an Agnes Martin painting, we see the use of Minimalist forms and multi-configured grids. Here, they trace the violent disruption of an earthquake, but the sensuous saturated white background makes it all seem initially innocuous. Both Siobhán McDonald and Agnes Martin share a way of pushing an essentially decorative sense of mark-making toward an expressive magnitude.

To Yeats’s consideration of historical cycles, Siobhán McDonald injects a geological and psycho-geographical dimension too. In reflecting on this, we see in her practice a desire to read history through its landscape, with its reverberations and revelations.

(1) William Butler Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’, in Augustine Martin (ed.) The Collected Poems (London: Vintage, 1992) (2) Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001)


Resonant Ecologies

Circa Magazine, Jessica Foley, Lecturer in Visual Art Education at MIC, Limerick.

Siobhán McDonald is a painter. A most recent adventure brought her to Montserrat in the West Indies – to Mount Chance, where she worked in an observatory with the scientists. There they record ground movements using seismometers – stations dotted around the base of the volcano, powered by batteries & energy from the sun – their outputs graphed onto lengths of paper for the scientists to decode. “I began to see it as a form of mapping”, she said, “The layers of line & latitude create a visual score, which maps the vibration of the earth’s signals”12. A traveler conscious of new terrain through vibrations & senses – the practice of her making embedded in a deep listening... The visual remains of the paintings powerfully suggestive reminders that the mind forgets the movements and experiences and encounters that give rise to the score – Becoming layered articulations over time – the beginning indistinguishable from the end – right at the centre of an entropy that is not destructive, not futile, but simply is – “...there is no mystery. Purity, simplicity, truthfulness and the absence of pretence or pretention are the marks of sound art, and such art is universally understood, as are simple folk tales and moral stories. Ordinary people know instinctively that art becomes degraded unless it is kept simple.” 13 Falling Silence – 1000cm square canvas – stratified oils & sumi ink – a paling horizon disguising the shadows underneath, the coarser ground hulking through the centre, resting on the still depths of blood red below. And all in between like some labyrinth of pathways, crusted walls rising up around, the walls of the world – an imagining of a landscape suited to the most courageous archaeologist, the most intrepid ecologist – navigating through without a destination in mind, without a summit to attain, without opposition, but with a determined ear – a listening consciousness.

The surface of the paint splattered table once again demands attention – the relief of it pushing softly into the palm – a reminder of someone else’s thoughts; “The ability to listen, which allows us to hold firm and remain vigilant at the borders of obscurity, might be the condition that makes it possible for us to remain open to further linguistic & theoretical fields of concern. We are thus released from those causalistic ‘explanations’ for which we have developed a kind of addictive tolerance: basically, un recognized shifts in the meaning of ‘because’ or, motives are not causes.”14 – a cultivation of listening might be a way towards a cultivation of thinking... The openness of the acoustic ecologist – the acknowledgement of choice – the open ended travels of the painter facilitating a sensory focusing – both recording & compiling; but without that imaginary climax limiting the importance of the process, or hindering the presentation of formalized output. That concern for thinking reestablishes itself – perhaps it should be voiced louder here under these grand oak panels, allowed to reverberate through this ‘teaching’ space – perhaps with one or an other it might resonate at some point in time...


Essay for ‘Ash and Ether’ by Conall Morrison, May 2009

Conall Morrison, Theatre Director

The floors in Siobhan McDonald’s studio are scatterred about with jars of bitumen and piles of volcanic ash, tins of oil washes and glazes to be used for staining. The walls are covered in photos, postcards of a Tadao Ando or Agnes Martin, cuttings from newspapers, fragments of mono-prints on Japanese paper, old x-rays, seismographic printouts, scribbled quotations, aphorisms and provocations.

McDonald is an avid traveller, a foreign correspondent who brings back visual reports, filtered into art through her imagination and wide-ranging technique. Her work is compelled by her fascination with the Environment and with environments, from oceans and oil-slicks to rust-patterns and the residue of rainwater. Having absorbed these images, atmospheres and impressions, she transfigures them into penetrating studies on place and human existence.

Part of McDonald's studio pratice is not unlike earth formation with its multiple layering and subsequent erosion. She lays down strata of oilpaint, with sumi ink, ressin - whatever tempts her by its unexpected appropriateness; then, having constructed her own primordial entity, she becomes her own geographer and digs back into the accretions, carefully scraping or scoring away, excavating until the painting has opened and revealed itself.

The end results vary from the darkly apocalyptic to the optimistic and inspiring. And yet she is careful to leave it as if the process were not complete, as if the work and the world it depicts were still in flux, like nature itself; so that a viewer could return to a painting after a gap and feel that the painting had somehow morphed, had altered with the flow of time, that the work was open-ended, like her own processes, mutable and ultimately unquantifiable, like life itself.

Her most recent trip was to the volcanic island of Montserrat in the West Indies. Its volcano, known by some as Mount Chance, erupted in (1995). Only the tops of the church spires are now visible in Plymouth, the former capital. For McDonald, a volcano is not only one of the ultimate forces of the natural world, but also one of mankind's most potent metaphors. The eruptive power - at once devastating and awe-inspiring - reminds us not only of the magnificent violence of nature and the fragility of human life, but speaks to us of hidden forces, chaotic unpredictability, energies boiling beneath surfaces…until the explosive moment arrives. This concept is centrally resonant with the concerns of her recent work - the forces that shape nature and their symmetry with human nature and human experience.


The Irish Times

Mark Ewart, September 26th 2007

Many of you, I’m sure will have become somewhat jaded by the disposable, quick-fix culture we live in, Perhaps the contemplative artwork of Siobhan McDonald’s is one way of gaining an antidote to this merry-go-round, as her mixed media paintings are all about allowing the subtle evocative sensations to clear the clutter from your mind and restore a sense of calmness.

This work is technically very accomplished and is executed without a hint of gimmick and artifice, demonstrating a tangible sensitivity to the language of colour and texture. The first impression is that these works are essentially abstract, and indeed, certain pieces do detach from reality and physical representation. By and large, through the influence of landscape is too tantalising to deny. Here, open vistas stretch to the horizon, but the passage to the vanishing point is interrupted by turbulent veils of air and diffuse light. Degradation of the painted surface is a strong characteristic, as layers of texture battle for your attention. At times the marks are bristling with energy and vigour. Elsewhere – and often on the same canvas - there is a delicacy through translucent layers. Filigree fine lines, wax resists and dry textures that all embody the sensibilities of drawing, rather than painting.

These surfaces have an ethereal other-worldly quality, which removes the images far away from conventional, literal interpretations of landscape. The colours and textures are at times reminiscent of the mystical qualities of the French symbolist Odilon Redon, minus the magical forms and characters. This sense of absence provides a stillness and grace that is certainly arresting for the viewer.


The Irish Times

Aidan Dunne November, 29th 2006

Siobhan McDonald is a textural painter. Her work in Threshold is based on landscape, but always with an eye to both atmospherics and metaphysics. It is as if each painting builds towards a state of epiphany and transcendence. Waves of energy wash across the picture surface in successive layers until a point of equilibrium is reached.


The Irish Times

Aidan Dunne June, 4th 2004

Siobhan McDonald’s paintings, in Heaven In Earth at the Cross gallery, are better in reality than in reproduction. Although they are gestural pieces, made with great vigour and energy, they are also very subtle, built up from many layers of different media, including charcoal, ink, beeswax, marble dust and oil paint, and much of their effect depends on the overlapping and often translucent interplay of these materials.


Irish Independent

Sophie Gorman, April 2004

It takes a very driven artist to establish an appreciative and loyal band of patrons and then create a new body of work. Siobhan McDonald is one such artist. Thankfully, though, her latest show doesn’t see her abandoning the identifiable style that garnered her admirers, but rather she expands it to create new avenues. For this, her second show in the Cross Gallery, the young Monaghan artist explores the interplay between the forces in the landscape and the patterns and rhythms in nature. Prevalent throughout is the suggestion of extremes: light and dark, translucence and opacity. McDonald’s tactile process is multi-layered, saturated with Japanese inks, beeswax and oil paint. ‘I work in an endless motion, putting down and scraping back, revealing and obscuring beneath the surface to touch an internal resonance or memory’.


Irish Independent

Ciara Ferguson, June 2001

Writing about an exhibition such as Siobhan McDonald’s at the Royal Hibernian Academy’s Ashford Gallery is difficult because the impact of the paintings and their emotional power lie on such a deep and intangible level. White light seems to radiate from the walls and the effect is of being immersed in the elements of air and water. Siobhan creates solitary, solemn paintings of mixed media. From slivers of silver to windows of washed ivory the colours are unforced, floating delicately as if form some other world.

The series of 6 panels deriving from Japanese woodcuts entitled She could also be called Saoi, such in their ethereal quality. Circular affinity is the theme, and to be surrounded by these calmly sublime textured paintings is like floating on water or being let loose in the clouds. This is only McDonald’s second solo exhibition and she has obviously invested much energy into these works.