The All of It by Peter Fallon
From the publication: Coastline Narratives, 17 Oct 2006
One of the more extraordinary achievements of Donald Teskey’s recent paintings is that, for all the uproar, the booming din that is part and parcel of their topics, their effect on us is one of calm. If we were to think of them as freeze-frames of a film, it would be one without sound, or with the sound turned down.
His oeuvre, of course, includes town- and cityscapes in which, like the monumental rocks of his coastlines, the buildings and other edifices are relicts of an older time – the cliff-like walls and gables of the docklands towering over water; the vast rotunda of the Mansion House in Dublin, caught from a lane behind; the cutstone bridge of a canal; smokestacks and stores, cathedrals of ancient industry; barns and mill-houses in Vermont; wrought-iron railings of a park or garden.
Others memorialize landmark buildings – a lighthouse in west Cork, Dublin’s Peppercanister Church, a former coastguard station in North Mayo – they too invoke a previous age. Human figures hover at the edges of crepuscular designs. They seldom occupy centre stage. They serve to confirm the artist’s interest in place, and the atmosphere of place.
But I believe Donald Teskey’s finest works so far – (and he’s still a young painter, the great adventure of his art still in full flow) – are his large-scale acts of attention to the ferocious clash of land and ocean, a series of masterpieces – yes, masterpieces – he extends in Coastline Narratives. Exact and evocative, these paintings enact every detail of the drama of the waves’ assault on the shore’s abrupt edge and, by pitting such elemental powers against each other, they conjure that conundrum of physics – the unstoppable force and the immovable object. And yet they display no over-awed, dispassionate detachment. Donald Teskey has spoken about his art as ‘chasing the light’ (‘Well, that’s what we all do.’) and in this new series of paintings and drawings he follows it into the nooks and crannies of the rocks, tracing the fault lines and defects which reveal their ultimate character. Because the apparent permanence of rock is an illusion, with the combined brunt of water worrying the land towards submission, there’s a sense that Donald Teskey is sympathetic to
what might be described by a phrase that comes from (of all places) Gone with the Wind. In Margaret Mitchell’s novel Scarlett describes Melanie, Ashley Wilkes’ wife, as being possessed of that ‘terrible strength of the weak’. The story of these paintings is an epic of the will to persist and endure.
The precise whereabouts of Teskey’s tidal and coastline narratives are declared only through the paintings’ titles or through the artist’s specific report. We couldn’t ever say we recognize or could pinpoint their map position. That’s not what’s important. At the least, in this context, these animated locations, backlit by the history of their evoluton, might be called ‘Portraits of Unknown Places’, but to contemplate them, to live with them, is to discover that, even more than versions of place and the atmosphere of place, they are meditations on what John McPhee, in his magisterial tetralogy,
Annals of a Former World (FSG, 1998) identifies as ‘deep time’, a span which we can measure as chapters in the biography of the earth but which we can’t comprehend.
Because the inclusion, or embrace, of ‘all time’ is beyond our capacity to imagine, let’s return to those freeze-frames. Donald Teskey’s paintings embody what Robert Frost described famously as that ‘momentary stay’. They glorify moments of poise, that mirage of stillness at the wave’s or swell’s apogee before the water spends itself across the foreground (see especially ‘Surge VIII’). Donald Teskey chooses his moments in such a way that he captures the energy of natural processes as if they were arranged with the order of a still life. (The strata of ‘On Bolus Head’ suggest their molten formation; ‘Valentia Island II’ seethes with lava-like rock.) His concentration on, and of, a moment is such that he makes it momentous. By snatching instances out of time’s incessant flux he fixes them in eternity.
So what we have in this show are common scenes rendered through uncommon artistry. Teskey’s signature pieces are distinguished, first, by the expert confidence of their composition. Many of these Coastline Narratives are etched in a way that we might see a score and hear its notes. They are underpinned by grids and graphs the paints will fill, layer on layer, as they’re scratched and scraped into being. Virgil said he fashioned his verses like a mother bear, giving birth to them and then licking her cubs into shape. Others are inscribed with lines that direct our eyes and instruct us like ogam (modern Irish, ógham prounounced óm), that ancient system of markings cut into stone, which served as memorials and territorial boundaries. Land’s ends, you might say.
Secondly, they are remarkable for the economy and efficiency of their coloration, the artist’s variation on themes within a narrow spectrum, the delicate balance of whites, greys and light blues offset only by the occasional stain of minerals deep in the monoliths or by earth tones of a distant backdrop. The colour range contributes to his works’ sense of lull or interlude. His is an assuaging art.
His paintings have what Ted Hughes called ‘the authentic fingerprint of experience’. They begin in a place, in the world, in fact – and end in glorious art. And yet for all the quietness I’ve emphasised, the silent opera of what Donald Teskey has already accomplished, there is in his work a hushed insistence. Could this potent undertone be close to an observation in ‘Ballynahinch Postcards’, my series of small engagements with the west of Ireland, by the coast of Connemara?
Some breakers spend
and slump towards rockfall.
against the wall
of the headland’s end.
The squeal and squall
of a seabird
you can’t see, the all
of it the part of us
calling to be heard.
Peter Fallon, County Meath, September 2006
Peter Fallon is editor and publisher of The Gallery Press. His most recent book, The Georgics of
Virgil, was reissued this year in Oxford World’s Classics.