Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith

Rain is when the earth is television.

It has the property of making colours darker.

Craig Raine, ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’


It would be surprising to find that Pádraig Timoney ever felt much affinity with that coterie of Oxford graduates who, for a brief moment in the late seventies and early eighties, constituted the minor movement in English letters known as Martianism.  The refined sensibility and chilly emotional temperature typical of that circle of writers, twenty years his senior, seems in retrospect to have been perfectly attuned to the Bloomsbury publishing houses and Hampstead dinner parties of a dawning era of Thatcher et al.  In contrast, Timoney’s anarchic, seat-of-the-pants aesthetic reflects both his early background – he was born in Derry in 1968, as simmering political resentment at social inequality was about to erupt onto the streets of Northern Ireland – and a roving life as an artist who for many years resisted the gravitational pull of the major centres of contemporary art production in favour of a spirited engagement with smaller, more local scenes, first in Liverpool and then in Naples. (He relocated to Brooklyn not so long ago.)  That said, his childhood happened to coincide with the apogee of the Space Age, when the world at large marveled at photographic images of our moon viewed up close and our planet seen from afar.  At the very least he shares the Martian poets’ attraction to the role of bemused alien observer, their compulsion to look anew and askance at the familiar and the mundane.   That the silhouette of Giordano Bruno – or, rather, the statue representing him in the Campo di’ Fiori in Rome – should loom out of several of Timoney’s paintings suggests an identification with that wandering, freethinking cosmologist, who was martyred for his heretical belief in a limitless universe encompassing a plurality of worlds.

Timoney’s propensity for contrarian perspectives is considerable. This is an artist who once painted a towering black monochrome punctured only by a tiny red dot and a tracery of green numerals, and related it explicitly not to the legacy of late modernist abstraction, but to what he fancied a house-breaker might see as he set about stealing a video-recorder (Burglar, 1997).  His capacity to will images into view, as if he were the persistently inventive subject of a never-ending Rorschach test, is no less remarkable.  This is as true of an early painting like Hitler Haus (1991), in which an otherwise nondescript building from the streets of his native city takes on the unmistakeable features of Der Führer, as it is of the more recent Imagine this pumpkin is a superhuge concrete boat that has crashed into a small volcanic island in the bay of Naples, knocking off the top of it and causing an eruption (2005), a realistically rendered view of his studio’s interior showing more or less what one might expect from the painting’s title. Yet he has also produced pictures whose abstract nature seems unremitting, including many canvases featuring irregularly shaped ‘stains’ of rabbit skin glue.  This is something of a signature material, which has historically been deployed as a primer, but which Timoney favours as a compositional medium in its own right and prizes for its contradictory properties (‘it’s cold and wet, hot and dry...[with] a great soft, but definite edge’ [1]).  Such non-objective tachisme can at times be counterpointed with what Clement Greenberg once derided as ‘homeless representation’, e.g. in the ghostly diptych The Influence of Giordano Bruno (1993) as if to insist on an absolute equality of image-categories and to temper any desire for transcendence.

Timoney is an adept of the one-liner.  One particularly memorable sight gag, Just a Note (1998), a small sculpture featuring an old red sports sock masquerading as a blown red rose, has the insouciant brio of a Picasso conjuring a bull’s head from the saddle and handlebars of a bicycle.  He is also, however, a purveyor of palimpsests.  Sometimes he is both in the same work.  As Liam Gillick has observed, ‘Timoney sets up a series of perceptual games that are sometimes startling in their simplicity, once we become aware of the implications and history of the images he chooses to trap. [2]’ Though produced quite a while after Gillick’s perceptive remark, Jett Rink (2007) is exemplary in this regard to an almost dizzying degree, if one rises to the challenge of excavating its sedimented layers of signification.  This is an enormous two-panel painting – one of what Timoney informally terms his ‘glue transfers’ –  each panel measuring 3 x 2.6 metres.   On the left panel we find the proper name of the picture’s title, picked out from an unevenly painted black ground in a rough, three-by-three grid of large, dirty-white, sans-serif letters.  The void at the centre of this array coincides with the space between the two words, which are written in boustrophedon, requiring us to read them in a top-to-bottom sequence of left-right, right-left, left-right.  The panel on the right supplies a black-on-white mirror image of its partner, with a few oversize ‘inkblots’ obscuring some of the reversed letters, the result of the excess hot water used to transfer the glue of the 'letters' from the black panel to the white.  It is as if we are being invited to peruse the inexpertly applied block-print of some gigantic toddler.  While the top line of text reads JET and the bottom line INK, the ‘arty’ wordplay suggested by the gapped line in between (R_T) is difficult to ignore, given the Duchampian penchant for punning evident throughout Timoney’s oeuvre. This oily, inky exchange gets murkier still when we (re)turn to the painting’s title.  

Jett Rink is the name of the tortured anti-hero of George Stevens’ sprawling Hollywood epic, Giant (1956), the last of the three major roles that would define the brief but iconic career of James Dean, tragically curtailed by a car crash before that movie’s release. Timoney’s billboard-size text-image recalls by indirection a turning point in the film when the impoverished, resentful Rink discovers oil on his small parcel of land, as it seeps into a muddy footprint left by the unrequited love of his life, played by Elizabeth Taylor.  Now Liz Taylor was, among other things, one of Andy Warhol’s most iconic subjects; and Warhol also, though less famously, depicted Dean, whom he once described as ‘the damaged but beautiful soul of our time’.   To sidestep the more obvious antecedents to Timoney’s diptych (Ruscha, Nauman, Wool) and relate it instead to Warhol’s two-panel paintings of 1963–64, in which various photographically derived images, including pictures of Liz and of fatal car crashes, are paired with a blank panel, may seem far-fetched.  Yet the account of Timoney’s painting offered so far also suggests some compelling points of comparison with Warhol’s later Oxidation and Rorschach paintings, and Rosalind Krauss has in fact proposed a reading of all three of these series that incidentally illuminates a crucial aspect of Timoney’s approach to his art historical inheritance.  Krauss views these series as parodic versions of previously vaunted modes of non-objective painting, i.e. the monochrome, Pollock’s dripped line and the ‘stain painting’ of colour field abstraction, respectively.  As such their cumulative effect is to thwart any aspirations to sublimation inherent in such modes by ‘reminding us that there is no form so “innocent” (or abstract) that it can ever avoid the corruption of a pejorative interpretation, a “seeing-in” or a “seeing-as”’ [3].  


A similar attitude is articulated by numerous ostensibly abstract but mischievously titled compositions produced by Timoney over the years, though it is one less rooted in the carnal, as Krauss’s reading of Warhol proposes, than in the comedic.  Such paintings include, for example, the obliquely Warholian Tinned Tomatoes (2003), whose title recalls those literalising monikers periodically coined in the popular press, since the early days of Modernism, to mock some example or other of avant-garde abstraction.  This attitude also informs the only serial work to date to punctuate Timoney’s otherwise restless approach to the production of images and objects, i.e. the suggestively titled ‘Privet Paintings’, which, as I noted some time ago:

can be combined to form a ramshackle modular hedge, [and constitute] an attempt to produce a ‘signature work’ with minimum effort which nevertheless manages to touch on a number of critical issues in the history of modern art, e.g. the difference between an object and a picture, the tension between representation and abstraction, the nature/culture dichotomy, and the choice between traditional [hierarchical] composition and all-over painting [4].  

More recently, this concern with the rudimentary, repeatable mark as signature has resurfaced in several sets of paintings featuring simple stains of sheep-marking ink on plain fleece rectangles (Seán’s Greens and Jack’s Blues, both 2012).  That this introduction into the ‘expanded field’ of contemporary painting of multiple works whose most evident raison d’être is to signal their affiliation and provenance should be grounded in Timoney’s experience of the farming hinterland of his native Derry is hardly surprising.  No more so than the fact that the fraught politics of a land he left in his teens has been intermittently registered in his work, with varying degrees of obliquity, ever since those early days when a plastic bullet or handful of nail bomb shrapnel might serve as art materials as readily as plaster, canvas or paint.

Timoney’s comedic challenge to sublimation is consistent with his indifference to another cherished tenet of Modernism, the belief in progress in art, especially as reflected by the evolution of an individual’s work over the course of a career.  An emblematic image here is a photograph of the artist apparently attempting to thumb a lift down the aisle of a Catholic church, which was recently reprinted as an illustration in a thought-provoking Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy written by the American artist David Robbins, a friend of Timoney’s and a kindred spirit if ever there was one [5]. Robbins has coined the term ‘Concrete Comedy’ to describe a significant, but hitherto unrecognised cultural category, which emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century and has since pervaded every area of public life, including fashion, sport, architecture, music, film, television and politics as well as the visual arts.  This alternative tradition differs from mainstream comedy in being fundamentally non-verbal, non-narrative and non-illusionistic. It is a material comedy of objects, actions and gestures, of making and doing rather than of saying or telling, with its own unwritten history and unsung heroes.  Among the latter are Konstantin Valentin, the early twentieth century German comedian whose eponymous Musäum [sic] in Munich is a cornucopia of erstwhile props - or, as Robbins prefers to call them – ‘comic objects’. These apparently include an empty nest in a basket with a sign saying ‘Nest with unlaid Eggs’; two umbrellas, one considerably large than the other, titled Father and Son; and what is presented as the actual nail which Valentin, formerly a furniture maker, ‘hung his career on...and became a folksinger’ [6]. Every one of these ‘works’ might be mistaken for a sculpture by Pádraig Timoney.  The lugubrious literalisation of figurative language in the last example cited, for instance, is reminiscent of the elaborate undoing of metaphor in Timoney’s 2003 exhibition The Grapevine and the Limelight, which simply consisted of a well-tended, potted grapevine facing off against a fully functioning, old-school theatre limelight [7]. From an embarrassment of other choices, the kitchen-sink micro-drama of Knife of Fork (1995) and the cod transubstantiation of Fried Salt (1997), also spring to mind. 

In conclusion we might note that the aforementioned photographic portrait of the artist as stalled hitchhiker is just one token among many of Timoney’s refusal to bow to conventional expectations of artistic progress.  His early career was notable for three extravagant expeditions – to Derry to have a pint of Guinness (Abortion, 1990), to Jerusalem to collect spiderwebs (Webs from Jerusalem, 1993), and to Hollywood to purchase a blank videotape (The Hunter Became the Hunted, 1996)  – which culminated in a speedy return to the studio bearing ostentatiously meagre rewards.  Some years later, when offered the opportunity to show for the first time in New York, Timoney chose to exhibit work from his student days. His 2012 exhibition at The Modern Institute – the prominent Glasgow gallery with which he has a long-term, but hardly pushy arrangement to open a solo exhibition every 29th of February – was called Shepard Tone. This is the technical term for the auditory illusion of a tone that seems to be continually ascending or descending in pitch, but never actually gets higher or lower.  In much the same manner the endlessly inventive and tirelessly productive Timoney has always been content to be seen to be going nowhere fast.  


Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith Critic is a critic, occasional curator and Senior Lecturer in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics at University College Dublin.




[1] Extract from an email to the writer. March 15, 2013.

[2] Liam Gillick, ‘Taking a bubble to the top of a mountain’, Pádraig Timoney: membranes of [thins pfast] (The Orchard Gallery, Derry, 1999), p.7.

[3] Rosalind Krauss, ‘Carnal Knowledge’ in Annette Michelson (ed.), October Files: Andy Warhol (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), pp.112–3.

[4] Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, ‘All Dishevelled Wandering Stars’, Pádraig Timoney: Lazy Clever Doubt (The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 2002), p.7.

[5] David Robbins, Concrete Comedy: an Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (Copenhagen: Pork Salad Press, 2011), p.54. 

[6] Ibid., pp.10–20.

[7] At 38 Langham Street, London.