Art First,  London   2002

Underlying Energy

Among Donald Teskey’s earliest exhibited works were technically proficient drawings of city streets. Even then he was instinctively engaged by the urban atmosphere, the densely textured built environment, the product of a mixture of accident and design, with its spatial complexities, its heady vitality, the possibilities it presented for human traffic and interaction.

Then, as now, when he depicted figures moving through the urban labyrinth– and figures in his pictures are usually moving, hardly ever still- he did so obliquely. They were, as they still are, usually turned away from us, variously covered up from the weather, bent against the force of the wind, silhouettes against the light, just disappearing in the distance, blurs of movement caught in the corner of the eye, busy living their own lives.

There was, in that early work, a certain unease built into the atmosphere, an element of tension. One occasional device was the depiction of a scrap of paper suspended by the breeze. Strangely, these scraps seemed freighted with an obscure significance. They had something of the quality of the so-called McGuffin in Alfred Hitchcock’s films; devices with no real, intrinsic significance around which, nevertheless, the characters and the narrative revolve. The scraps of paper were a cryptic focus for the images’ energies. And the idea of energy was and is absolutely central  to Teskey’s work. In the more recent past, two sabbaticals from the urban world that usually preoccupies him took him to the epic, sparsely populated natural landscape of North Mayo and to Cape Clear island off the West Cork coast. His approach to this unaccustomed terrain is informative in relation to his approach to the city. The monolithic blocks of coastal landscape feature less local incident than the metropolis, but they embody the struggle of titanic masses and forces. The sea’s relentless attack on the rocky fabric of the western seaboard is sobering in its sustained ferocity, carving out vertiginous indents and harbours that engaged his attention. Down south, based on the voyage to Clear, he made a series of paintings that vividly convey the huge energies of the ocean. Inevitably, given his abiding preference for the city over the country, he was also drawn to centres of habitation, and his depictions of the small port towns concentrate on the washed-out light falling on the tough, weather-beaten infrastructure. While the sea is turbulent and vigorous, the land, both built upon and natural, seems exhausted from withstanding the continual onslaught, defending itself against the endless cycles of tides, winds and rains that batter it.

In Ireland, people are famously attentive to the weather because the climate is relatively wet, notoriously changeable and predictably unpredictable, and it is clear in the evidence of his work that Teskey is no exception to this rule. He always has an eye on atmospheric conditions.

But in his drawings and paintings the mechanics of weather seem to stand in for something as well, for an underlying energy that he always tries to express. His recent paintings of Dublin are typically attuned to the climatic details. They are illuminated by a watery blue light that is as tangible as the layers of paint he applies with knives. The city comes across as a place every bit as textured and worn by time and weather as the Atlantic outposts to the west. This is not merely a matter of recording wear and tear, however. There is a level of affection built into his treatment of the city’s functional fabric. His eye for exotic ordinariness, for architectural forms like domes doesn’t detract from an emergent view of Dublin as a worn, familiar place where the obtrusive differences and disjunctures have been smoothed away by time to leave a tolerant, harmonious heterogeneity. The city is like a sculpture, of a piece. You feel that you belong in these streets, that you could slip down that laneway and save ten minutes on your journey. And then, slanting across the sky here and there, are the long limbs of construction cranes to remind us that the city is changing, now.

Looking at his paintings of the city we are never quite sure of our ground because the ground is always giving away, disappearing beneath our feet, dropping down or climbing up to another level where something else is going on.  Even the most straightforward aspects of urban topography, things we take for granted to the point that they hardly register as features in themselves, gain a renewed sense of drama and strangeness in his compositions. His liking for canyon streets lined with high-walled warehouses and other industrial buildings, for the lurching, unexpected falls to railway lines, rivers and canals, for alleyways that open unexpectedly like crevasses in city blocks, for sunlight that spills out of hidden openings, is thoroughly consistent with the precipitous drops he so relished depicting in his coastal landscapes.

Some years ago, in an unexpected departure, he explored the drama of space in terms of a series of dreamlike circus drawings in which the arena of the big top, with its acrobats and lion tamers, its dangers and delights, functioned as an allegory of life. Human life, that is, in terms of both the individual external histories and emotional complexities, the acts of trust attended by risk, the feats of balance and dexterity that all relationships entail.

So the spatial grammar of the city in his pictures, with its possibilities and pitfalls, might be interpreted as a counterpart to the emotional grammar of its inhabitants. Certainly the highly charged quality of the images, the way they offer us so much in terms of choices, inviting us to negotiate their unaccountably fraught spaces, intimates that there is something more at stake than getting from A to B. They always offer a route through, implying that there is an interesting destination around the corner.

A conventional approach to painting Dublin might be to push the city away until you can grasp it in terms of recognizable vistas, or to zoom in on constantly photographed landmarks. Teskey does neither of these things. In many respects, the place he describes fairly faithfully courts anonymity. In conversation, he remarked that one of the things he likes about the city as opposed to the country is the constant succession of accidental landscapes you encounter here. Turn a corner, climb a stairway and you have a whole new perspective. The entire structure seems fluid and mutable. Whereas in monumental Mayo no matter how much you move around the immensity of the place itself remains unmoved. Making his watchful way around the city he makes rapid drawings in sketchbooks. Tellingly, in the light of the extraordinary restlessness and mobility of his pictures, the way they seem to situate us moving through a space rather than looking at it from outside, standing still, he also uses a video camera as an aide. In the past he did use a still camera but for several reasons he never felt happy with the results. Atget photographed a deserted Paris, as one commentator put it, like the scene of a crime. Edward Hopper painted the loneliness, ennui and alienation of city life and captured the poetry of American urban architecture. Despite the note of anxiety that sometimes informs it, you could not say that Teskey’s work is characterized by comparable notes of morbidity or melancholy, though he clearly loves the poetry of city spaces. His work is hugely energised, almost celebratory in its evocation of metropolitan existence. He has a feeling for the intimate geometry of the city as experienced by its inhabitants. It is almost as though they move along its forms and though its spaces as in a work of art. Perhaps the city they negotiate in his paintings is life, and their progress through it is living.

Aidan Dunne, December 2001