Wednesday 12 December 2018

What Lies Beneath

Diane, Larkin Community College by Mandy O'Neill Photograph, edition of five, courtesy of the artist

Niall MacMonagle

Growing up in not-so-leafy suburban Dublin, Mandy O'Neill "knew there was more out there that I didn't necessarily feel I could access. I always wanted to be an artist but I didn't see this as something attainable. For my younger self, and still today, art seemed like another world, an escape".

At secondary school, Wednesday was half-day and O'Neill "would often get the bus into town and sit in the National Gallery. I liked the feeling there, I liked the escape from the suburbs".

Mandy O'Neill is now back in the National Gallery - this time with her own artwork, her photographic portrait Diane, Larkin Community College, one of 25 works shortlisted from nearly 300 entries, for this year's €15,000 Zurich Portrait Prize. She was previously shortlisted, in 2014 and 2015, for what was then the Hennessy. This year's winner, chosen by judges Geraldine O'Neill, Sue Rainsford and Tanya Kiang, will be announced tomorrow.

When Mandy O'Neill left school in the 1980s, "college just didn't happen for me" but as a mature student - BA in Photography at DIT, a Masters in Public Culture Studies at IADT - "I was finally in the right place and I have never looked back. Education empowered me".

Her photographs of community events, men's shed groups, older women groups and school rituals such as Gaeltacht trips, Halloween, Christmas, Confirmation are "not political but there is a strong social commentary running through my work. I would rather make people think than push my opinions on to them".

As artist in residence at Larkin Community College, in the heart of Dublin, O'Neill photographed every Leaving Cert student. This one, of Diane, who is French, is a beautiful, compelling work, brilliantly printed by "Jim and Ed at Inspirational Arts and framed by Morris at Frame Factory".

For O'Neill, Diane was very striking. "She stood out. For me it's a hopeful, beautiful and strong image." For the viewer, O'Neill hopes that "it will make them feel something, that it is affecting. For me it's in her gaze".

An everyday, familiar school uniform is here worn with style by a confident and relaxed schoolgirl. Rolled-up sleeves, top button undone, her distinctive, sophisticated hair no longer dictated by fuddy-duddy school rules, her make-up, the necklace, that earring, those perfect eyebrows and especially the beautiful, light-catching brown eyes become an image of a young woman in a moment in time, a young woman who is about to step into the future.

That youth gives way to old age doesn't bother O'Neill: "I live in the now. I'm not really into nostalgia. For Diane, I'm sure she has wonderful things ahead of her." And Diane, the subject of O'Neill's work of art, is now herself studying art at NCAD.

Asked the impossible question, What makes a good portrait? O'Neill says "it's when a lot of different factors just come together: the gaze, the environment, the pose, the light, and the relationship between photographer and subject. Ultimately it's some intangible element that draws you to it. And you just can't stop looking".

Instagram: @photomando7

The Zurich Portrait Prize at the National Gallery of Ireland runs until Sunday, January 13, 2019. Admission is free.

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