Paint, Water, Rock

From the publication: Tidal Narratives, by Aidan Dunne, 8 Sep 2005

For his latest body of work, Donald Teskey has cleared the decks. Gone is much of the pictorial paraphernalia familiar from earlier paintings: architectural scaffoldings in the form of tight networks of city streets or, more recently, clusters of buildings around harbour walls. These essentially solid, sculptural frameworks are modelled by the fall of light. The combination of light and structure make pathways for the viewer’s eyes, opening routes into the pictures’ intricate patterning. It’s easy to see, with hindsight, the way the canyon walls of city warehousing might resemble natural features and prefigure the sea cliffs that became, unexpectedly, a source of inspiration for the artist in the late 1990s.

Unexpectedly because he had, until then, come across as an urban painter, securely and contentedly at home with a contained environment fabricated, and densely inhabited, by humans. On occasion the latter put in an appearance, though peripherally, rushing past, turned away, heading somewhere out of frame. They added to a sense of windblown urgency in the images. Weather has always been an important factor in Teskey’s work. In early drawings, scraps of paper carried on the breeze are metaphors for pictorial import, for what, that is, makes a picture quicken and breathe: something elusive, fleeting, precious. Content is a glimpse, as de Kooning memorably phrased it, “a slipping glimpse.” It could be that the quicksilver mobility of Irish light, watery but strong, constantly deflected and knocked about by fast-moving cloud cover, has since fulfilled this function. Certainly the light that swoops and rushes through the paintings is extraordinarily animate.

In the urban compositions there is a feel for the structural complexity of the city, its layers and networks. It is noticeable that bridges and viaducts often feature, as do abrupt changes in level, as road gives way to railway or canal, and the threads of power lines and lighting and communications are always there, woven into the urban fabric.

In any case, in 1996 he was invited to visit the Ballinglen Art Foundation in Ballycastle in North Mayo. As anyone familiar with the area will know, the coastline landscape there is dramatic and uncompromising. It is vast in scale and relentlessly weather-beaten. Beautiful, but in a stark, even cruel way, it feels as if everything extraneous has been simply scoured away by time, wind and rain.
Though it wasn’t immediately apparent, Teskey’s first visit was absolutely decisive in terms of the development of his work since. He has been back to Ballinglen several times and he has also been inspired by other coastal landscapes, in West Cork – including the sea around Cape Clear Island – and Kerry, where he has worked at Ballinskelligs. In other words, he has maintained a curious balance in his work between Southwest and Northwest coasts.

Talking to him at the time of his initial encounters as a painter with these epic new amphitheatres of possibility, it was evident that he was in the process of taking something on board, coming to terms with something unexpected but monumental and inescapable. It gradually became clear that the something in question is the sheer scale and what might be termed the ferocity of the natural environment at these various locations. In paintings of sea cliffs, of the harbour at Killala, the pier at Baltimore, and related subjects, everything present in the urban landscapes is again evident, only more so. The stakes are raised. Several of the paintings of seaboard towns vividly convey a particular kind of light: the bright but subdued, washed out, battered, exhausted sunlight that can follow a storm. A crossing to Cape Clear in relatively heavy weather presents a new view of the sea. It’s suddenly there, brimming and huge and, alarmingly, above rather than below. It’s an enveloping presence, menacing but also luscious, embodied in thick creamy swathes of oil pigment. Light maps the moving channels running across its turbulent surface just as light maps the solid patterns of the city’s byways.

There is a significant shift in approach here. As the artist notes of this period: “Structure was always central to the work.” When dealing with the city structure was a given, it was unavoidable. Of course, perhaps reassuringly, coastal locations also offered built environments, notably the harbour towns. There are many paintings of piers, those harbour walls and buildings bunched together close to the sea. Initially he was more wary of natural topography. “It’s only in the last few years that I’ve come around to the idea of the free landscape. It took a while because I think when it came to landscape it was a question of finding an organic structure that allows the paint to speak.” The dramatic organic structures of shoreline cliffs and headlands bear some resemblance to the built
environment though, as he notes, Downpatrick Head near Ballycastle is such a dauntingly conspicuous and distinctive landmark that he tended to keep away from it for a good while, preferring more anonymous sections of the coast. As with the paintings of city streets, which draw us into their networked spaces, their patterns of light and shade, he wanted a way of placing the viewer within the landscape. He mentions the common experience of standing out on the rocks, looking at the waves breaking: “There is a sudden surge of water. You jump back to avoid the paintwater.” Paint-water: that is the immediacy he wants and that is presumably why he is drawn to try to capture the feeling of explosive bursts of water against rock, a demanding, all-or-nothing subject.
Whatever happened, the elemental partnership of sea and shore, rock and water, has provided an organic structure more than sufficient to sustain several substantial bodies of work, including a group of the largest paintings he has ever made. In these large painting he was consciously setting out to establish a maximum scale for himself. As it happens, it transpires that he can paint
comfortably on a very large scale indeed. This is relatively rare in the history of Irish landscape painting. Nathaniel Hone the Younger’s ‘Rocks at Kilkee’, among a number of works he painted on the Co Clare coast around 1890, is a superb picture, very free in its handling and comparable to Teskey’s shoreline paintings in its spare, near monochromatic account of waves braking against
dark rocks. It is a relatively big work though less than 1.25 metres across. As with Hone, Teskey eschews the consciously spectacular. Rather than depending on monumental scale or force in nature – the Cliffs of Moher in a force ten gale, say – both opt for ordinary sections of coastline subject to everyday tidal action.

In terms of immediacy, a big painting has the advantage of addressing you directly on a human scale, whereas a small painting tends to push you back to an instinctively natural visual distance, so that you tend to feel more in control of it. In the course of conversation, Teskey refers several times to setting up conditions within which the paint can speak, or work, or flow. The point is that it’s not a question of doing something with the paint, or of making it do something, but of reaching a stage where gesture is entirely in accord with image, so that the painting is not simply a depiction of something but corresponds to it on a deeper level, in terms of rhythmic energy, for example, appealing to our instinctive response to landscape. In that regard, he found that the paint flows best over a large surface, offering the best chance, for artist and viewer alike, of what can fortuitously be described as immersion in the work.

There is a direct link between the very small studies that he makes and the very large paintings. Each of the latter can be traced back to one of the former, to a certain extent. It might be more accurate to say to a cluster of the former. His working method is based on prolonged familiarity with the landscape he addresses. He will revisit a location many times, but it’s only on a particular
day, for some reason, that its potential as a subject becomes apparent and it offers a starting point. Similarly, he will make many small studies of a particular location until, “eventually”, one of them works. He generally moves up in scale from the initial, small studies. It’s inviting to see a correspondence between this method of working, a repeat pattern of being there, looking, drawing
and painting, and the repeat pattern of the subject matter, the perpetual interaction between sea and land.

As a subject matter, it is minimal and elemental, and an object of perennial fascination. In his introduction to a major survey exhibition of the St Ives artists, David Lewis notes the inescapable dominance of the Cornish coastline in their work: “The landscape is permanent, the rhythm of the sea’s pounding is infinite. Yet no moment is the same: one minute’s windgust, cloudshape, coldness of rain is changed by the next. Art makes us pause to contemplate: even violent art contains the stillness of the infinite.” In a way Lewis equates sea with shore and appeals to art to arbitrate in their endless conflict. Yet his image of stillness surely goes against the spirit of the subject. It is surely the paradoxical quality of sameness allied to perpetual change that draws us to the shore. It could be that sea and shore, and paintings of sea and shore, fascinate partly because they reflect a
fundamental dichotomy of human existence: we are transient beings, both substance and process. This duality is expressed in the respective priorities of substance philosophy and process philosophy. In a way substance philosophy is exemplified by a common-sense, familiar metaphysical system, with an emphasis on thingness and fixity. Process philosophy, which to all intents and purposes originates with the Heraclitian idea of flux – “Everything flows” – bubbles along beside mainstream thought before finding renewed popularity with 19th and 20th century British and European philosophers. To speak of “things”, they suggest, is misleading without reference to the processes that lend them only momentary configuration.

In their dynamic relationship, sea and land represent extremes of these states. The land is substance, the sea is process. A process philosopher would argue that our sense of rock’s solidity and fixity is mistaken, that the rock we see is glimpsed in the midst of its own cyclical process of creation and destruction. That is absolutely true, but from our perspective, the rock is fixed and solid, worn down only over vast passages of time, and the sea is by contrast fluid, ever mobile, always in a state of becoming.

Landscape as a subject emerged from the sidelines in Western painting. From playing a supporting role as parergon, an ancillary detail supporting the main thematic material of a work, it gradually became, in various guises, the thematic argument of the work itself. In other words, from serving the function of a framing device, like frames themselves, or drapery, or architectural details, the
landscape or, in this case, the sea and rock, become the subject. Afforded a new role and deprived of the buffering effect of various potential framing devices, what is the nature of the images of sea and land? In terms of both Kantian aesthetics and the more abstruse ideas of Kant’s as revised by Jacques Derrida, the answer is probably pretty much the same.

In Kant’s terms, Teskey’s images move in the direction of what he calls free beauty, the beauty of something naturally occurring. For Derrida, the peculiar role of the parergon can be on the one hand to shield an internal lack in the work or, on the other, to contain “the operation of free energy” in the work. Teskey’s aim, in the progressive distillation of the elements of his pictorial language, is surely something analogous to this play of free energy.

Aidan Dunne is the art critic for The Irish Times, and has written extensively on Irish Art
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