The Prism of Painting: Pádraig Timoney at Raven Row

Mark Prince

Reviews / 31.07.2013

Exhibition view, ‘Pádraig Timoney. Fontwell Helix Feely’, Raven Row, 2013. Centre left and far right: American Mirror, 2007, and Broken One Way Mirror No.3, 2009. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith. Courtesy the artist and Raven Row, London; The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; Raucci/Santamaria Gallery, Naples.

A wooden panel, hanging like an old-fashioned shop sign from Raven Row’s Georgian façade in east London, was printed with the words ‘FONTWELL HELIX FEELY’, in the handwritten, capitalised style of the newspaper headlines transcribed onto the poster stands of British street vendors. Black on white, the word ‘FONTWELL’ turning at the end of ‘FONT-’ to fit the panel’s width, it also resembled a Christopher Wool text painting. But whereas Wool’s dysfunctional line-turns snap into sense after a few moments, this sign, proclaiming the title of Pádraig Timoney’s exhibition, witheld meaning, disappointing the expectation suggested by the headline format that information would be functionally transmitted.1 The coyness was apt, given the contrast to be found between the heterogeneity of Timoney’s painting and the consistency of that eclecticism itself.

Left to right: Pádraig Timoney, Séan's Greens, 2012 and Warning, 1994. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith. Courtesy the artist; The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; and Collection Enrico and Elia Bianchi, Lecco

The centrality of relativism as a theme within Timoney’s painting practice points back to the context out of which he emerged, graduating from Goldsmiths College, London, in 1990 – two or three years after the first YBA generation. But whereas artists such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas were looking across the Atlantic, drawing on the ironic existentialism of Bruce Nauman and the brash, media-savvy pop of Jeff Koons, Timoney’s generation – which included Glenn Brown and Richard Patterson – came under the sway of contemporary German painters. The latter only became familiar to UK audiences towards the end of the 1980s, with Gerhard Richter’s 1989 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London,2 and ‘Art from Köln’, a group exhibition including Richter, Sigmar Polke and Rosemarie Trockel at Tate Liverpool the same year.3

The work of Richter and Polke suggested that a postmodern artistic approach, encompassing a spectrum of idioms, could be applied to a painting practice. Extending Andy Warhol’s line of enquiry, they also demonstrated painting’s assimilation of the photographic image, with its empirical access to an array of ‘real world’ references. Richter’s Atlas (1964–ongoing) – an expansive collection of photographic images suggesting taxonomical logic in its transitions, but refusing to flesh out those hints by revealing any definable narratives – was a quintessential model for postmodern painting as a heterogeneous discipline, promiscuously referential, capable of forging direct access to the ever-burgeoning mass-media culture that had hitherto seemed to lie beyond the circumscribed sphere of 1980s painting. This must have seemed an attractive model in the late 1980s, when painting in the UK was caught between a decorative formalism, left over from the ‘New Generation’ of the 1960s, and the empirical figuration of ‘The School of London’ painters, both tendencies anti-photographic.4

Left to right: Pádraig Timoney, Birch Wood, 2002 and One of them threw one of them through one of them, 1996. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith. Courtesy the artist and Raven Row, London. Collection Tom Wood; Private collectionOf the painters of his generation from the UK, Timoney interpreted the German example most literally, both in its appropriation of photography and its embrace of stylistic heterogeneity. For him, photography offered a breach of painting’s solipsism by granting it the breadth of reference associated with less medium-specific practices. Following Richter’s example, Timoney went on to combine painting with photography, exhibiting the media side-by-side, in explicit conjunction, while exploring the proposition that a coherent artistic subjectivity need not be synonymous with the singularity of a painterly idiom. But where Richter and Polke had fragmented painterly subjectivity into spectrums of co-existing stylistic options that retained specificity to a single hand and sensibility, Timoney’s mannered, strategic eclecticism dissolves it more radically. Even if certain threads run through the two decades of work covered by the Raven Row survey – such as the use of rabbit-skin glue as paint as well as ground, and the association of the monochrome painting, the mirror and the black-and-white photographic image as three related aspects of pictorial illusionism – Timoney’s abiding trope is the immaculate presentation of an ambivalence as to the possibility of formal continuities.

Whereas a Warhol silkscreen or a Richter photo-painting is impersonal, Timoney’s work might be described as a-personal, dissociated from subjectivity, and capable of assuming an array of forms with glib flexibility. Irony is his pervasive tone, in the word’s literary sense of a disaffected wit, as well as its philosophical sense – used, for example, by Richard Rorty as a relativist antithesis of traditional ‘metaphysical’ belief systems5 – to comprehend the interchangeability of Timoney’s idioms. Of course, the two senses of the word are interwoven. But it is the contradiction of this multivalent irony by its realisation in the form of a series of efficiently functional effects which characterises Timoney’s approach. Doubt is expressed with an unerring assurance that belies it.

Doubt is expressed with an unerring assurance that belies it.

One of the earliest works in the exhibition, One of them threw one of them through one of them (1996), is a slightly taller-than-square canvas, a little over a metre in height, sized with rabbit-skin glue, but otherwise bare, and framed by a multicoloured assortment of translucent set-squares that serrate its edges. Like the board outside the gallery, the work feigns a gesture of appeal, followed by refusal. Given Timoney’s familiar use of size as a painting medium, the canvas would register as a monochrome painting, if the contrast with its colourful border did not qualify its minimalism as a condition of vacancy, a lack of image. This rejection of the monochrome is fitting, given that Timoney does not appear concerned with the formalistic nuances of monochrome painting, any more than a photographer might attend to the aggregate which forms his picture. Timoney’s lack of concern with formalistic nuance, and the functional efficiency of his process, are therefore consistent with his presentation of the monochrome as an ironic signifier of absence. He treats irony as a mannerist painter might treat a model’s chiselled profile: as an image to excel at perfecting, that is, paradoxically enough, with an earnest lack of irony.

Left to right: Pádraig Timoney, Meep Meep Popup, 2011; Bison Horizon, 2009; and Corona Compass, 2008. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith. Courtesy the artist; Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; and Raucci/ Santamaria Gallery, Naples

A formal embodiment of this paradox can be found in the most recent series of paintings at Raven Row. Meepmeep Popup (2011) and Untitled (2010), for example, are painterly representations of photographic fragments collaged until their content is so attenuated that they impart only a vague aura of indexical representation before resolving into lush abstract patterning. The clash of original contexts – characteristic of Dada collage or Burroughsian literary cut-up – is elided, leaving a generalised sense of relativistic conjunction, without the friction between incongruous material that might have originally impelled such a process. The paintings are fortified by a ‘documentary’ air that is dismissive of the terms on which the abstraction they constitute functions. Image content – with its representational access – could be said to judge the abstraction it forms as decorative patterning; in turn, the abstract forms dismiss the conveyance of information by breaking up the traces of imagery into what constitutes, on their terms, greater formal specificity.

Timoney will outweigh the briefest of visual puns with their executionSimilarly, Timoney will outweigh the briefest of visual puns with their execution. Lighting in the Hide (2008), for example, is a painting of a zebra overlaid with an effects filter that striates its image, the striping of the image mimicking the striping of the animal in an absurd tautology. The throwaway lightness of the conceit is undercut by the process which produced it – an elaborate layering of stencilled oil paint in a series of minute tonal variations. This is an inversion of the terms on which a Warhol silkscreen operates – a concise and mechanical painterly gesture producing a statement that appears at first fecklessly ironic, then proves to be weighty and elegiac. In Warhol, the pathos produced is clearly contingent on and proportionate to the superficiality of its vehicle. But Timoney not only inverts this relation, he also severs it. At its most blithe, Timoney’s art recalls the truism that a joke is entirely reliant on the nature of its telling: his jokes are rendered questionable by the bland functionality of their conveyance. Séan’s Greens (2012) is a series of four paintings each featuring scribbles of red and green spray paint on a white polyester fleece ground that corresponds to a sheep’s woollen coat, at least if we attend to the list of materials included in a wall text indicating that what appears to be standard coloured spray paint is, in fact, sheep dye. This self-reflexive in-joke on postmodern painterly assumptions is so overcompensated for by its finicky construction ­(the spotless white polyester with its spare spurts of colour) that the work’s irony – its raison d’être – resides entirely in the absurdity of so negligible a conceit being realised so fulsomely.

Pádraig Timoney, Lighting in the Hide, 2008, oil on canvas. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith. Courtesy the artist and RSC Contemporary Ltd The closest Timoney comes to reflecting on the disjunctions he cultivates between process and effect, and between form and content, is his play on the exchangeability of the forms his illusionism adopts. One regular form is that of the hand-gilded or silvered mirror – a mirror chemically burnished to a pewterish dimness. At Raven Row, one of these silvered mirrors, American Mirror (2007), was hung on the same wall as Broken One Way Mirror No.3 (2009), a canvas of roughly the same size, stained dark grey by a wash of ink and pigment suspended in a solution of rabbit-skin glue. Applied by hand in uneven sweeps, the chemical that darkens American Mirror has left a faint pattern of discolourations corresponding to variations in the density of ink and pigment that stain the canvas of Broken One Way Mirror No.3. Both effects seem predicated on the tonal illusionism of black-and-white photography. Timoney’s gilded mirrors have the sepia dimness of daguerreotypes, the earliest of photographs, typically a medium for the self-commissioned portrait, and a surrogate for nineteenth-century painting.

This triad of illusionistic forms (paint/mirror/photograph) symbolises Timoney’s relativism, and establishes the predominance of the photographic model within his practice. If analogue photography was traditionally characterised by its evidential power – its claim of ‘that-has-been’6 – Timoney demotes it to one of a spectrum of illusionistic effects, even as he registers its centrality as a model for representational painting. A centrality that is crucially claimed at the expense of painting – Timoney’s primary medium – acceding to a submissive role. As always, Timoney gives and takes away with the same hand.

  1. ‘Pádraig Timoney. Fontwell Helix Feely’, Raven Row, London, 27 April–23 June 2013.

  2. ‘Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977’, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 23 August–1 October 1989.  

  3. ‘Art from Köln’, Tate Liverpool, 20 May–28 August 1989.

  4. I refer to the painting and sculpture exhibited in a series of group exhibitions, which started at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London with the exhibition ‘The New Generation’ in 1964. The British painters and sculptors who participated – such as John Hoyland, Bridget Riley, Paul Huxley, Anthony Caro and Phillip King – produced abstract, formalistic work, influenced by US Abstract Expressionism and Post-painterly abstraction of the 1950s and 60s. Many were recent graduates of what was St. Martin's School of Art, London. The group of painters who have been summarised under the label ‘School of London’ – essentially Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and Michael Andrews – although they were of an older generation than the ‘New Generation’ artists, came to prominence in the UK around the same time, having developed empirical, figurative idioms in stark contrast to the formalism of the ‘The New Generation’ artists. Both tendencies, however, shared an anti-photographic bias. Of the ‘New Generation’ artists, even those with figurative leanings, such as Patrick Caulfield, were graphic, rather than photographic. The ‘School of London’ rejected photography except as a source for visual information which would be radically transformed though the act of painting. Bacon sometimes commissioned photographs to be taken of his models, but always used them indirectly, as an imaginative cue for a painting process, and never exhibited photographs. Michael Andrews occasionally used photographic silkscreen printing in his paintings of the 1960s, but only as a ground which would be subsequently overpainted.

  5. In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty argues that all languages are contingent and that instead of discussing language’s relation to reality we should consider how vocabularies relate to other vocabularies. He defines an ‘ironist’ in these terms: ‘(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realises that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophises about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.’ Rorty takes Proust, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida as examplary ‘ironists’, and contrasts their ‘irony’ with the Platonic ‘metaphysical’ position, according to which concepts such as ‘good’, ‘moral’ and ‘human nature’ have absolute, categorical meaning, not subject to subjective relativism. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. p.73.

  6. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (trans. Richard Howard), London: Vintage, 2000, p.96.