Loops and Sidings

Rubicon Gallery, Dublin 2009

In 2006 Donald Teskey took up a residency at the Albers Foundation, the prestigious art campus set amidst vast woodland acreage in Bethany, rural Connecticut. It was for the artist both a solitary and enriching experience, consistent with the Alberses’ ambition to facilitate creativity ‘in idyllic conditions at a remove from the art world’. At ease with solitude and, as any survey of his oeuvre will show, very much at home in the rural landscape, Teskey was an ideal candidate.

Bethany’s local topography was alien to Teskey, and the dense verticality of its woods a challenging contrast to the wild coastal regions he had recently depicted in Ireland. He took time to familiarise himself with these new surroundings, in which hemlock trees – the so-called ‘ghosts of the forest’ – ‘shimmered singularly amidst firs and oaks’.[1] His desire to know the landscape, which involved lengthy walks and impromptu, aimless road excursions, culminated in a series of small-scale, dynamic works on paper, assembled for the Rubicon Gallery.

Teskey did not, however, endure complete, uninterrupted isolation during his sojourn in the country. At the invitation of friends, he made timely visits to Boston and Philadelphia, transiting New Haven and New York en route.  In Philadelphia, a sprawling city of contradictions, he was introduced by local artist Stuart Shills to some of the city’s decayed quarters. These neglected, peripheral spaces redirected Teskey’s attention, albeit temporarily, and inspired an investigation of the urban, industrial landscape that would ultimately lead to the prosaically titled collection ‘Loops and Sidings’.

Integral to ‘Loops and Sidings’, as its names suggests, is the railway, which from its earliest days, has enthralled, inspired and impressed the creative mind in equal measure. From its bustling city termini to its furthermost reaches, the railway has been romanticized in word, picture and song as a means of escape, an exemplar of modernity, and as a kind of democratic, social theatre. The United States railroad has been as mythologized as any.

Teskey did not, however, record the railroad’s human, animated character, but considered a part of it that is at once familiar, universal and restricted. His focus was the inaccessible no-man’s-land that lies between station and journey proper, a curiously inanimate world of metal and concrete only ever observed from the remove of a railway carriage. Indeed, one of Teskey’s titles, A Moving Display, acknowledges this distinction while hinting at the collection’s more ethereal qualities.

Critically, loops, sidings and stockyards are not strictly the subject of Teskey’s pictures, but rather the neutral vantage point from which a similarly stark industrial landscape beyond their perimeter is observed. It is an untraditional, compromised vantage point, from which views are invariably obscured or interrupted. Teskey’s compositions are punctuated, and in many cases defined by barriers: walls, railings, bridges, railway lines, pillars, coils of barbed wire. Beyond these obstructions lies an interstitial wasteland of backstreets, factories, warehouse and yards. Though public, these are bordered territories; the antithesis of the wooded expanses Teskey was living within and recording in Bethany.

Émile Zola’s declaration in 1877 that ‘our artists ought to find poetry in the stations as their fathers found it in the forests and fields’,[2] was a call to celebrate a technological, social and architectural phenomenon that powerfully signified modernity and progress.  Over a century later, but still drawing on a landscape tradition, Teskey discovered poetry in a contiguous but graver quarter, the terrain vague. As Luc Lévesque has written, to many observers the terrain vague ‘runs contrary to the desired image of the prosperous city’ and ‘punctures the ideal of plenty and order, generally associated with urban prosperity’.[3] It is precisely these qualities that attracted Teskey. When leaving New York, he noted the ‘really striking factories + old industrialised buildings – dirty, decrepit, decaying edges of the city – the parts you would never see unless you’re on a train’. To him, transition, decline and decay in an urban context are infinitely more compelling a subject than the untarnished, unseasoned evidence of boom and affluence.

Teskey has said that when working on these compositions, he looked for a balance between abstraction and representation, and was most satisfied by those works which are ‘disorientating’. The territorial graffiti tags that embellish the concrete in Colonial Steel, for example, seem to soften their austere, built surroundings and the distinctive scrapes, scores and hatchings of the picture surface.

The world that inspired ‘Loops and Sidings’ is not presented as merely a counterpoint to the rural landscape.  Teskey did not seek out crowds and social activity to counterbalance his solitude in the country.  Instead, believing that the introduction of human activity can ‘sweeten’ the bleakest cityscape, he recorded an environment that though antithetic in fabric to Bethany, was similarly unpopulated.

Serendipity too played a part in the conception of the large canvases.  Having forgotten the camera he commonly uses when preparing his work, Teskey resorted to capturing images on a mobile phone. The resulting dull, grainy pictures proved an ideal resource for an artist temperamentally resistant to exactitude in his work. The elimination of unwanted detail is, for Teskey, central to his creative process. The role of the train itself is merely implied.  The reflections in the window that mask Teskey’s digital sources have been omitted, as have any references to the interior of the carriage.  The pictures’ large scale and format alone suggest a carriage window.  The works in ‘Loops and Sidings’ are in essence composites, resonant of a terrain rather than bound to a particular location or episode. Teskey recently defined himself as ‘a painter who works in the landscape’ rather than a landscape painter.[4]

It can be argued that the universality of these works is partly attributable to the fact that all were executed retrospectively, in Ireland.  Indeed, Teskey knew as he committed the scenes and experience to memory (and memory card) that he would not be able to paint them in Bethany, surrounded by trees. Crucially, he sees the works, like the moments that inspired them, as the beginning, rather than the end of a process.

Brendan Rooney, 10 March 2010

[1]In conversation with the author, January 2010.

[2]Émile Zola, ‘Notes parisiens: Une exposition: les peintres impressionistes’, Le Sémaphore de Marseille, 19 April 1877.

[3] Luc Lévesque, ‘The terrain vague as material – some observations’, House Boat/Occupations Symbiotiques, AXENÉO7, (Hull/ Gatineau, 2002), pp.6-7.

[4] Brian McAvera, ‘Tracking Donald Teskey’, Irish Arts Review, vol.26, no.4, (Winter 2009), p.66.