‘Fontwell Helix Feely’
Raven Row, London
27 – April – 23 June
Eminent American literary critic Harold Bloom’s concept of the ‘anxiety of influence’ theorised that poets were perpetually in contention with their own precursors, wrestling with the rampant references that inevitably populate art forms burdened by long traditions. The idea’s unhappily combative sensibility and formalist stricture have found it somewhat outmoded, but in an exhibition like Pádraig Timoney’s ‘Fontwell Helix Feely’ at Raven Row in London, its relevance sees a revival. Not unlike that of poetry, the history of painting, even attenuated to the last few centuries, is unforgiving in its immensity, and it looms over the gallery like a storm front over a dinghy.
Whether Timoney, in his evasion of style, falls prey to the inevitability of circumstantial quotation, or simply accepts it as an occupational hazard, is not for me to say, though I would prefer to believe the latter. Nonetheless it becomes difficult to accept his canvas painting on its own terms. Because no one aesthetic trajectory takes primacy, they all seem subordinate, and the viewer reconstructs the sensibilities from what seem to be its likely antecedents – David Salle here, Gerhard Richter there – on the family tree of postmodern painting.
Large works like Turns on Top and Meepmeep Popup, in which Timoney employs photographic developer to muddle his painted overlays of cartoons and Neo-Geo, seem to be caught halfway between insouciant misquotation and earnest efforts at newness. Similarly, the atmospheric rendering of Tinned Tomatoes and Bombed Coral, rendered partially through the unusual application of rabbit-skin glue and the more conventional glaze of modern / postmodern visual citation, hang on the wall attractively enough while contrarily winking that this formal abstraction business is all a bit farcical. The modest walls of Raven Row are hung heavily, with a few stray pieces lodged in the less trafficked corridors and interstices. This is of some import here, as the most engaging points of the exhibition are usually small, often crammed into corners, between a pair of doors, linguistically or conceptually extruded from the concrete artwork.
Four identically-sized stretched polyester wool panels, sprayed with green and red sheep-marking paint and entitled Séan’s Greens, are dispersed unevenly throughout the three floors of Raven Row like sheep on a pastoral northern hillside. There are sporadic blossoms of quietly intelligent weirdness like Fried Salt, which is a plate of exactly what it claims to be, and a handful of reminders of Timoney’s various homes, like the Derry recalled in Resistance to Fading, an aggressively republican graphic coffee mug glued to the inside of a doorway. One of three hand-silvered mirrors is titled Automatic Portrait Repeater, while a similarly misty-grey rabbit-skin-glue canvas is called Broken One Way Mirror, no. 3. The plaster panel of The Unforgiven features a glibly scrawled portrait of a capped and bearded man, maybe, or maybe not, an approximation of the subject of the painting from which the plaster cast was reportedly made.
Timoney’s work is indeed boldly eclectic, though the fact that this seems to bear such constant mention, and meet with such consistent praise, may also speak to an excess of engineered focus that is prevalent in contemporary visual art of the ‘oughts’ and of this decade. It doesn’t overstate the case, after all, to suggest that Timoney’s pronounced sense of risk and range would perhaps be the norm in a more functionally discursive art world. Moreover, flirting with failure and incoherence could be seen as the necessary condition of manifesting new ideas and methodologies, but this also demands a standard for how much of this unresolved adventurousness makes it inside the gallery. As not all of Timoney’s creations on exhibition are really successful, they collectively present a polemic on the merits of appreciating failure.
The infamous drill sergeant says of the literate smartass Joker in Full Metal Jacket, “He’s got guts, and guts is enough”. Bloom might disagree, but he would likely not have foreseen the market-instigated motivation for the genuinely curious to affect the attitudes of clowns. The painter’s impertinence, indeed his defection from the rudimentary tenets of gallery success, perhaps cloaks in the guise of irreverence a not un-solemn mission of sharpening the dulled bite of a suite of paintings in a white cube. Flat work hung on a wall can also upset the status quo, and could stand to try a little more often. Remember that shortly before the aforementioned drill sergeant uttered that line, he was slapping Joker across the face. Timoney too, in demonstrating his guts, seems to accept the imperative of taking a few licks along the way.
Curt Riegelnegg is a writer based in London