Every landscape has a story

Gerard Smyth’s opening introduction for the exhibition Nature Reserve – the Town Hall Gallery Macroom (August 2012)

I am delighted to be here to perform this opening for Donald this evening, but let me first say that I always tend to approach a task such as this with some trepidation because I feel it necessary to bear in mind the remark by the French writer Flaubert that you won’t find a single good work of art in all the museums of the world which needs a commentary.

Donald Teskey is now the creator of many such good works of art – but he is not just a highly gifted painter, he seems as well over the years to have developed a canny gift for finding places with which his painter’s instincts have bonded so well.  He recognises the potential of a place to reinvigorate his own inventive powers as an artist.

On the streets of Dublin, in Robert Frost country in Vermont, in the woodland of rural Connecticut, on the rocky and often desolate shores of our coastline, in North Mayo and Connemara, and now here in the Lee Valley, in The Gearagh, he has found the source of his latest inspiration: you could almost say that these works are an artist’s equivalent to that great Irish oral and literary tradition, the dinnseanchas – or the lore and sense of place.

And that is highly appropriate in view of the many local literary associations – which I will come back to.

In all this there are of course signs of a restlessness of the artistic spirit. But this is not just about taking the earth’s offerings but about giving back in return – and what he gives back we see before us here this evening.

When he hears or recognises the call of some place –it could be wild or quite serene – he answers that call, goes there and comes away with images that capture the essence and very specific character of that place or region, images that also show us a new perspective and have about them the kind of “mental freshness” that Lucien Freud associated with the landscape of Constable.

That freshness has been constantly renewed in each new phase of Donald’s engagement with the landscape. He is a landscape innovator, and also a painter who, I happen to think, becomes besotted by the aura of a place; he absorbs what his eyes tell him and transmits his experience through those wonderful swathes of rich colour that in turn catch the energy of landscape or seascape.

He helps us to see what we might otherwise miss, something that we need also to treasure.

Again too we see how water and trees figure as formal elements in a substantial way – but in these paintings they do so in a rather intimate way that could be seen as a contrast to the epic and epically imposing vistas of the coastline paintings with their tidal turbulence and their force-of-nature drama.

In contrast, there is a kind of hush and an at-ease serenity in these places, the atmosphere is a brooding as well as a beguiling or alluring one. The flux and bustle of the coast shores is replaced by the stillness of this insular terrain.

In the way that Beckett understood the silence beyond language, Donald understands the silence that is at the very core of a place such as The Gearagh and he knows too that every landscape has a story.

Donald described this quiet corner of County Cork to me as being an almost mystical place. A remark that suggests that he is not afraid to become emotionally involved with the terrain – and that is something I see as a good thing in any artist. He becomes besotted by a place and its powers.

Again in these new paintings, we see his commitment to place, in terms of his art, because we can see how the painter is there – or rather here – at the heart of it; there is real connection in the artistic perception and how he expresses it in colour and form.

There is indeed a relevance to the use of that work “mystical” when it come to Donald’s depictions of place – his brushstrokes and colours hint at something beyond those physical and palpable elements or presences we see in his paintings, the windblown trees and uneasy water, or the interplay between them and between those other aspects of the landscape that he incorporates into his work – houses that may or may not have inhabitants, farm gates, those hints of roofline or gable walls, the trucks that have seen better days.

And looking at these paintings I am reminded of these lines by Derek Mahon, coincidentally from his poem called “A Garage in County Cork” …

We might be anywhere but are in one place only,

One of the milestones of earth-residence

Unique in each particular, the thinly

Peopled hinterland serenely tense –

That description of the hinterland being “serenely tense”, could I think apply to the places that attract Donald.  I think it was Elizabeth Bowen who said too that the Irish landscape had “an air of intense existence”.

The paintings seem to say that every moment is a fleeing and transient one. There is always in each work an overwhelming mood of mysteriousness – and their power derives from this and especially from Donald’s ability to convey this mysteriousness, often in those blue shades that are a hallmark of his palette: “a cosmos of blue that works magic”, as Frank McGuinness once described the effects of those different shades of blue that epitomise so much of his art and makes it so stimulating for the viewer.

I once heard the work of another painter being referred to as being “mysterious in a clear-eyed way” – that could also be said about Donald’s …

These, like all good paintings, require us to look closely but also to look slowly because they are steeped in atmosphere. They  demand from the viewer an unhurried and attentive response.

His landscapes vibrate with luminosity. There is a terrific exuberance and sensual vividness in the way he gets close to his subjects. He has, over many exhibitions, shown us that there is still untamed beauty in the world and we should be grateful for that as well as for his imaginative accounts in paint of that beauty.

The challenge that the Irish landscape puts before a contemporary artist like Donald is not so much the landscape itself but the myriad precedent interpretations that stand in the way of seeing it. It has in a way dominated the Irish psyche for a very long time.

I am currently reading a great biography of Titian and came upon a phrase that immediately made sense to me when I had the chance to look at these paintings of the Lee Valley.

And that phrase was “water surrounded by land intensifies the effects of colour”. That very effect is I think evident in some of these Gearagh paintings. What is also evident from the works on show is that here lies a place of natural abundance.

On a personal note I have to say that it is wonderful to be opening a show of Donald’s work in the heart of a place that has so many poetic associations and resonances – Sean O Riordain, Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonail or Eileen O’Connell and her Lament for Art O’Leary, and my own contemporary Sean Dunne who is buried in Ballyvourney and in whose work I probably first came across mention of the Gearagh – in  that lovely poem “One Sunday in the Gearagh”.

In another of Sean’s poems The Gougane Notebook  he describes this area as “his place of hills and silence/his place of peace in crisis” – that defining description corresponds very much to what I find in this sequence of work.

I think those literary references are appropriate because I see Donald as a lyrical artist.

And as much as it once nourished the vision of the poet, it has now nourished the vision of the painter. I think we should all be grateful for that.