Whispering to the ground
Manicured hands appear to cradle or lay down a young child’s head. The stepped haircut could place him as a schoolboy from any decade in the last century. The touch seems gentle and light, a benediction perhaps. The subtle attenuation of the fingers is certainly female. In many ways, a not unfamiliar visual representation of childhood and family life yet, as in so many of Patrick Redmond’s paintings, there is a detonating detail. The boy’s closed eye is so oddly turned; the eyelids slightly thickened and almost, it seems, beginning to rotate around the lacrimal point.
This detail, this tiny vortex is definite and disquieting; it sets off a sequence of observations and associations, opening to questions that have no reply. The artist’s ongoing thematic concerns – the experience and even anxious expectation of loss; the intricacy and mutability of memory – implicit here, are encountered in the other works in this exhibition. Through fictional and possible worlds, Patrick explores narrative indeterminacy with a rare painterly erudition and, even rarer, deep-searching sincerity.
Ekphrasis resumed, we notice the bridge of the nose is perturbingly plastic, yielding unnaturally under pressure and submitting to a kneading process of forming and re-forming. Whatever is taking place, ‘Facemaker’ is about unmaking as much as making. To the painter’s task of modelling flesh, at which Patrick is so technically capable, has been added an element of disintegrative détournement: the eye pulling the check into its vortex, unsettling in itself, ‘infects’ or destabilises other parts of the canvas – from the echoing whirl of left ear, to the lush, woozy amorphous shapes in the background.
The technique of anamorphosis, as deployed in this painting, is an approximation of a distorting digital effect but one no viewing position or device can correct. It is, instead, part of a visual strategy of defamiliarisation that obtains throughout all the works. ‘Making strange’ in this way discloses something, perhaps, key to viewer’s perceptual processes - the necessarily skewed and fragmentary nature of our memories and relationships.
Specifically, and most curiously, anamorphosis here causes the strangely-lidded eye to closely resemble the shape of a cowrie shell. The resemblance calls to mind the plastered and painted skulls created by Neolithic peoples of the Levant. Cowrie shells, set into the eye sockets of human skulls modelled over in mud and plaster, stare into eternity. This potent and life-like detail, representing sight or somehow forming an extension of the human body, suggests mortuary practices produced the first examples of portraiture in the material record.
From the ‘Jericho skulls’ to the most sophisticated of Fayum encaustic portraits, the psychology of mourning has long served as a catalyst for art. Today, the function of photography in vernacular memorials can be said to meet a similar need; from printed mass cards to the Facebook pages of the deceased, the living endeavour to maintain ongoing relationships with the dead. And who, when looking through family albums, has not experienced something of this uneasy presence-as-absence? One has only to consider the fate and faces of relatives, orphaned by time and vanished contexts, to become aware of the extent to which our own photographic archives stand as material testimony to the truth that ‘we all live by leaving behind’. i
Certainly, 19th century postmortem photography is a significant, if oblique, influence on Patrick’s current body of work, informing both the collecting criteria for found images and his approach to materials. In age when infant and child mortality rates were such as are almost unimaginable to us now, mourning families might arrange for a last portrait of the deceased; the body presented between life and death, children posed to appear asleep. Early manipulative techniques, such as hand tinting, retouching and collage, developed to increase the appearance of life, serve to induce a further uncertain, ambivalent legibility to these images.
It is no coincidence, then, that so many of the subjects of his pictures are of children and youths or that compositional decisions consistently avoid the directness of their gaze. In these complex works, visual strategies evoke interior and exterior worlds: subjects are doubled in more ways than one; they are typically turned away from the viewer, absorbed in either activity or reflection or, as in ‘Dark glass’, seen in reflection. In this small grisaille painting, a young girl leans her forehead against the interior glass of a train window. The beauty and lustre of her hair is expertly described in monochrome and enlivened by the faint reddish stain of the canvas ground. The quality is such that one can almost feel the coolness of the glass. Her face in reflection, the dark mirror of the title, swims in pools of shadows; her lips and eyes are preternaturally dark – darker, now we see, than the cast of electric light should allow. The moment turns from simply a tired child to a hallucinatory premonition. The painter’s invention, only just shy of ghoulish unpleasantness is a projection of a parental gaze – protective and anxious, wanting to treasure her beauty and fragility yet anticipating the trials of an adolescent coming-of-age and imagining the worst. The Romantic paradigm of the innocent child evoked even as it is dismantled.
This fraught engagement with the idea of a ‘knowing child’, described by Neil Cocks as “a category of subjects active in their own representation rather than passive objects of vision” is (all too) acutely aware of a wider shift in cultural representations and visual portrayals of children, from the image of the ‘natural’, ‘unknowing’ (that is, sexually innocent) child to images that are “bodily, self-aware and sexual”.ii A dialectic of innocence and knowledge operates in Patrick’s work, becoming a visual means and metaphor through which to address discursive constructions of childhood; a gendered perspective is brought to bear, for example, on the products of childhood - the image of the wooden schooner (carved by artist’s father, a merchant sailor and dedicated amateur painter) makes an epigrammatic pairing with the painting of the delaminated double-page spread from a teen magazine, its pomaded crooners set within a wooden frame (made and decorated by the artist’s young daughter).
As an artist always intrigued by the ambivalence produced and conveyed by photography, Patrick has increasingly looked to the materiality of the medium, to the surface qualities of the print – much as a conservator would note sheen or abrasion. In this, Patrick who has steadily made paintings after photographs, is exploring familial commonalities that exist between reproductive technologies and the arts of painting and drawing that extend beyond the use of photographs as a fixed (or ‘too fixed’) reference image. The work consciously establishes dynamics of surface and touch in order to focus on notions of ephemerality and remembrance.
In one small painting, a glass tumbler is held upside-down and firmly cupped at both ends, the pressure creating a slight vacuum. A thumbprint on the glass is prominent and dark. The bodily trace in all its oily particularity connects productively with the more nebulous senses of containment and release at play in the picture. The effect is to sublate the clichéd queries of optimism or pessimism into a koan-like annulment - the volume is both full and empty. The tumbler (along with the sapling, and the songbird) has become a motif for Patrick in recent years, recurring as an open signifier for future possibility.
One of most compelling paintings is a closely cropped image, focusing on the hand and another register of touch. The hand is that of an older man; two finches rest on the slightly cupped finger and wrist. The picture speaks of an intimate sphere – a simple act, a small, patient communion. For all its apparent simplicity, its source and inspiration is multilayered and gives an insight into Patrick’s creative process. Firstly, there is the world of private significance: the painting is an effort to recreate a memory which came back vividly to Patrick in dream closely following the death of his father. Yet, as is so characteristic of the doubts that set in with all efforts to consciously recall autobiographical memory, an out-of-focus and badly exposed photograph of the same subject also exists in the Redmond family archive.
The prompt to distill this intricate paradox of emotional specificity and narrative uncertainty into an artwork came from a chance discovery of a remarkably similar subject (and composition) taken by the Kearton brothers, early British wildlife photographers. In ‘Dartford warbler and chick on Richard Kearton’s hand’ (c.1890) the outstretched hand is recorded in such detail and clarity as to rival Dürer’s ‘Study of the hands of an Apostle’. The painting made in response involves a secondary layer of interpretation and a further point of triangulation: the blurred original photograph of his father was restaged with Patrick’s paternal uncle. The similarity of the two men’s hands (striking both artist and model as almost miraculous) is an expression of continuities that owe as much to the urgency of memory as to genetic code. Mediated and remediated through this intuitive process, the subtly inflected image takes on new life and meanings of its own. The accidental detail of the grey cuff of forearm crutch, for example, a formal echo of the jacket cuff, becomes an augury that adds to the sensitive emotional resonances of the work. And all is a foil to the birds’ iridescence.
The conceptual ambition of Patrick’s practice derives from a commitment to figurative representation and a fascination with personal photography, as images and (less common these days) as material objects. The sustaining tension is generated by the fact that his primary interest is not in the realism or ‘transparency’ of the window on the world offered by photography but rather in the complex layers of mediation necessary to negotiate its defining contradiction - the illusion of apparent immediacy and the sense of absolute pastness.
Patrick takes, as his subject, existing modes of personal photography within the family sphere precisely because, although often fleeting and commonplace, they are the pictures that come to occupy the hinterlands of our everyday lives. Such images are enmeshed in practices of communicative memory that serve to reinforce interpersonal relations and shape personal connections with the past. We rely on everyday contexts of informal exchanges (now including networked environments) or material ensembles (like frames and albums) to interpret and make meaning. Yet as Olga Shevchenko, commenting on how memory and photography are mutually constitutive, writes:
Not only is memory mediated, it is also - and paradoxically - inherently unstable, situational, and intersubjective. We remember different aspects of the same experience when we recall in different contexts, with different interlocutors, and in different points in our lives. In this sense to frame photographs as containers, vessels or expressions of memory is to misconstrue memory by imagining it as a static thing to be contained and transmitted, rather than a practice to be enacted and performed variously on different settings. iii
The process of translation through which photographic sources images become paintings involves various acts of appropriation and re-contextualising. And behind those strategies lies an earnest question: if communicative or everyday memory, formed and vouched for by personal experience disappears (as it must), in what settings might its departing echoes be made ring with a sustained reverberation? In some works, this is done through a triggering or disruptive element that amplifies potential psychological dynamics, imbuing the pictures with an alien intensity; in others, through a more diffuse feeling of open-endedness that resists narrative elaboration even as it invites imaginative projection. If this is a dream world, the structures of feeling are vague and emergent but we can also recognise in them tensions, energies and vulnerabilities that are refracted through the greater culture at large. It is not for nothing that Patrick’s preferred term for these works is ‘histories’. Their narrative indeterminacy has the rigour of method. Working closely with the photographer, Michael Byrne, and with a mostly familiar cast of models (often literally so, drawn from the artist’s own family circles), Patrick sets about staging simple, predetermined scenarios. This stage opens to improvised action and intuitive discoveries. Reference images generated through this process are specific in their detail but radically open to association and allow the greatest number of possible interpretive pathways. In recent years, these have begun to involve more complex restaging of found images and layering of art historical references.
In ‘Crossing’, for example, one of the large ‘soot drawings’, a hooded boy balances in tightrope walker fashion upon a fallen tree. Its trunk, bisecting the lower left and bottom edges of the drawing, is a bulky parody of the Nike’s victory swoosh on his trainers. The pictorial ground is formed by a collaged surface made up of overlapping pages from outdated dictionaries and encyclopedias. The effect heightens the attention we pay to the interpenetration of image, surface and facture. The printed columns of text ghost even the darkest passages and in the ‘reserve’, or unworked portions of the drawing, set the highest tonal values. Both subject and composition lend themselves to a symbolic reading: the boy’s passage across the liminal space of adolescence. In the convention of Romantic landscapes established by Caspar David Friedrich’s transcendental ‘Monk before the Sea’ (1808–10), the standing figure is a ‘stand in’ for the real viewer, a literal detail before the radiant depths of the void beyond. ‘Crossing’, in that conventionalised account, is a projection of empathy, a gesturing towards the transcendental unknown. Yet instead of numinous darkness we have the noisy grain of the material substrate. Instead of knowledge, information - uselessly random and with no intentional correlation with what is depicted.
The soot drawings exploit a modesty of means and the affectivity of trace and imprint on the yellowing paper. Direct, drawing made with compressed crayons of the artist’s own manufacture, combines with matt granulated washes of soot proclaiming the drawing’s contingent materiality. The evocative and expressive potential of both the medium (a byproduct of domestic residue) and ground (a recycling of obsolete learning materials) create an oscillation between surface and image and between figure and ground analogous to the involuntary shuttling back and forth of subject positions within the compositions. Each mutually reinforces the other, building in unresolvable spatial, temporal and psychological ambiguities. There is an internal logic to be found at work in the ‘histories’ of this series, it is the logic of distance and separation – the unbridgeable distances in our emotional lives; the impossible distances at the limits of self.
Aodhán Rilke Floyd, 2017
i Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes the Memorious’ (1942), in Anthony Kerrigan (ed), Ficciones, 1962, 113.
ii Neil Cocks, ‘Fort/Da: A Reading of Pictures of Innocence by Anne Higonnet’ in Karl Lesnik-Oberstein (ed), Children in Culture, Revisited: Further Approaches to Childhood, 2011, 148.
iii Olga Shevchenko, ‘Memory and Photography’ in Olga Shevchenko (ed), Double Exposure: Memory and Photography, 2014, 5-6.