From Bethany To Beacon Falls

From the publication: From Bethany To Beacon Falls by Gordon Teskey

The works for which Joseph Albers is best known, the austerely geometric Homages to the Square, many of which are on display in the foundation’s gallery, seem very far removed from the concerns of the landscape artist. But the purity of Albers’ forms is a surprisingly apt point of departure for the landscape artist to move out from, into the entanglements of the woods.

The foundation itself is a low-slung complex of buildings nestled in the trees on a slope looking down to a small lake—almost a pond—surrounded by ash, cherry, maple, oak and, near the water and leaning out over it, silver birches. Among the trees, especially on the lower, swampy ground and on the slope above it, are eastern hemlocks, a tall, dark evergreen tree that thrives in deep woods and has widely-extended, feathery, down-sweeping branches. (These branches are dark on the underside, and Teskey paints them with the brush exuberantly full). From the numerous forest trails, there are occasional views of rustic buildings.

There are thus three main pictorial elements in these compositions: the light, rapidly-articulated, vertical lines of the birches, the dark, sweeping, horizontals of the evergreens, and human structures —barns, houses, sheds, even an abandoned truck—which seem to be settling into themselves, gathering and protecting the darkness that lies further back in the woods. The force of these paintings is not in these pictorial elements alone but rather in the spaces between them and the manner in which the viewer is made to feel she or he is moving, sometimes with difficulty, through those spaces. This feeling of the possibility of movement raises the question of blockage. It is because they make us feel we are moving through them toward a mystery within that these paintings can be called “initiatory.” What I mean by this can be understood if we contrast these entangled forest scenes with Teskey’s recent work.

The “Tidal Narratives” of Teskey’s show at the Limerick City Gallery (2005) were grand, open seascapes on rocky shores, calling our attention to the immensities of geological time and making us feel our insignificance in relation to this time. If they are narratives, then their narrative form is the epic. The compositions thrust outwards toward us, fixing us to the spot. The new paintings are in a very different mood. These intimate landscapes, with their dark hemlocks and slender birches on soft, forest ground, draw us inward. If they had one, their narrative form would be pastoral in its more mysterious and shadowy moods: vespertinal tranquility, but without the shepherd’s tomb. We sense there is water nearby, but only occasionally do we catch sight of it as we seem to pick our way carefully through leaf mold and brush and over exposed roots, bending to avoid sweeping branches. We are trying to get somewhere, but what see towards remains shrouded. The light falls from unexpected angles, almost sideways at times, when the crowns of the trees overshadow our steps. Buildings occasionally appear, although they feel closed to us, as if protecting the darkness within. The windows into the buildings are black, like the darker parts of the forest beyond, at once enticing and forbidding.

What is this darkness? It is perhaps the mystery of time, of human time, for the houses change more slowly than the forest around them, and more slowly than us. Similarly, the abandoned truck seems to hold in its interior, and in its very wheel wells, a darkness that belongs to the past. Even in the clearings, as in the painting of the wide, sloping path between what appear to be alders, darkness bleeds out of the woods and spreads along the ground before our feet. Or the darkness is reflected upwards from the surface of the pond, gathering under the branches of the trees. This is an intimate, even secretive landscape, not so much welcoming as merely possible to get through, creating a sense of mystery in a place that is also, inexplicably, familiar, like strangers we meet in a dream.

What does it mean to paint in the woods? When painting or drawing outdoors it makes all the difference in the world whether one has an unimpeded view, across an intervening space (of a mountain, for example, or of rocks on a seashore) or whether one is trying to see through the curtain of the foliage and between the boles of the trees to something beyond. In the first case, what is painted stands at a distance across empty space and is seen as an object that is separate from the observing self. The self is easily forgotten as its attention is absorbed by what it sees. In the second case, the entanglement through which one is trying to see makes one aware of one’s own effort at seeing and also of one’s effort to move into what one sees. Instead of being arrested before the distant object and fixed to the spot, motionless before the sublime, as in the seascapes mentioned, one is reflexively aware of oneself traveling over uneven, boggy, complicated ground, where one’s sight is impeded and partial perspectives open only briefly before closing again. Our glances are rapid, like saccades, as we strive to restore a sense of space for ourselves in the complicated scene. What it means, then, to paint in the woods, and what it means to look at Donald Teskey’s deeply engaging paintings, is to see our own lives as we live them, in motion, with only a dim view of the future or the past, both of which seem to reside in the darkness inside these houses and beyond them, in the trees.

Gordon Teskey teaches English Poetry at Harvard University