An off-the-beaten-path exhibition space in Rome’s Pretorio neighborhood, far from the tourist circuit, Indipendenza is one of those “you have to know about it” places. By all evidence, its director prefers it that way: the name does appear on the building’s entry buzzer, but once inside, you’re on your own, without directory or signage to assist. (It’s on the top floor.) Indipendenza’s program has points of contact with the international discourse in a town where that signal tends to be jammed by antiquity. While not a commercial gallery, shows in recent years have included works by established artists such as Louise Lawler, Klara Lidén, and Larry Johnson. Neither above ground nor under it, Indipendenza willfully occupies a purgatorial station.
Such layers of ambiguity form a fitting backdrop to waters of night, Pádraig Timoney’s presentation of paintings and mirrors. Organized by Gérard Faggionato, the exhibition feels less like a survey show pulled from a deep historical inventory of production—the correspondences among the works are too neat—than one of recently made works informed by a multi-decade history of dialogue between artist and curator. That, too, is curation: an objective professional relationship helping to form an exhibition and bestowing a gestalt. This said, showing new works in a nonprofit space makes for an interesting sort of bardo, market-wise. Interesting, too: it’s a show of wall works hung in the classical manner that reads the way a site-specific installation might. There is more than one kind of in-betweenness at work here.
Timoney is blessed with a poetic eye and a deft hand. On a walk down the street he is likely to notice more subtleties of material life and context than you or I might. In waters of night, however, he’s working differently, drilling deep into a restricted set, as an artist occasionally feels the need to do. The world is for the most part left at the door; the show’s concerns zero in on what happens in the studio, the negotiation between painter and painting, and how the eye behaves. Not relying only on paint, though: this show features numerous mirrors, not industrially produced but hand coated (isn’t that painting?) by the artist. Timoney can paint the hell out of a picture when he wants to, but he also has a reputation as an alchemist intent on inventing processes appropriate to wrangling a particular image onto a surface. Here, the alchemy ropes in the chemistry of mirror making; this is less a show of pictures than of picturing. How to drill down into a relationship between perception and the image without handicapping the process by deciding on an image? Employ something, like a mirror, that generates its own imagery. Using a mirror as a surrogate for painting is like printing the word “word” without having to assign it a font.
Focusing myriad questions about perception and reality, self and setting, the mirror is a trope with a rich history in all the arts. A trope is psychological, something of the mind. The mirror is a portal into ourselves. A mirror displays partial evidence of reality’s grammar while at the same time defining its limits by hinting at another reality behind or beyond it. With mirrors standing in for paintings, waters of night, ostensibly about painting and perception, ends up theatrical, cinematic, literary. We move not into the visual spaces that are isolated within the individual works but rather between said spaces, somewhat self-consciously so.
We take a mirror’s silvering for granted; in that sense, we don’t see mirrors anymore. But change a mirror’s silvering to another metal—to gold or to copper, as Timoney does in several works here—and you’ve changed not what is reflected but what reflects. Another wall work, Half-Broken Mirror for Rome, a one-off, is something of a pitcher’s balk: the verso of the glass has been frosted, which neuters the silvering, effectively producing a mirror that doesn’t reflect. Slyly, though, the outward-facing surface of the glassstill does. It “mirrors.” In another room, a large pane of glass given mirroring treatment on both sides leans cradled in the trough used to make all the mirrors in the exhibition. (Chemicals are poured onto horizontal pieces of glass, after which the mirrors are stood upright in the trough, for rinsing and to apply other chemicals as the artist may desire.) Two facing mirrors on a single sheet of glass create an infinitely regressing reflection. But we can’t see it, and the gray opaque backs mock our voyeurism.
As we move through the rooms, mirrors reflect mirrors as well as the selection of paintings also on display. The paintings are of three kinds. There are abstractions—dry charcoal over dry white primer, pushed around and removed with a soft brush—which Timoney collectively categorizes as Broken Mirrors (by which he means nonreflecting rather than shattered). Taking up and extending his established interest in process, the aim of the Broken Mirrors, the artist explained in an e-mail, is “to open a kind of space, similar to that virtual space provided by mirroring. The ‘imitation’ takes cues from the materiality of the actual mirrors—darker edges, swirls and smudges and liquid feeling. They are the same dimensions usually as the mirrors. The depth varies slightly, but the illusion on the side—the dark edge, more or less the same thickness as glass would have—is deliberate.”
In several other paintings, illusionistic space of another sort is created by means of layering two unrelated images. The substratum was painted in acrylic, on top of which a second image was painted, also canvas edge to canvas edge, in oil. Photo developer was then strategically applied, which removed the oil paint but left the acrylic unaffected. The negative space left by the oil painting’s erasure reveals the positive space of the acrylic. Locking dual vantages together in a single work, the shredded picture is in the tradition of Mimmo Rotella, Francis Picabia, even James Rosenquist.
In a hallway between two of the rooms, eleven mixing sticks in various colors lean against the wall. All in the lineup are neatly painted or stained monochromes. They are deliberate works, not tools splattered from use; a few are bisected, horizontally, by the addition of a second color. Flanking them on either side, one of their number hangs on the wall. Is that one a “painting”? Are the leaners “sculptures”? In another room, a pair of painted mixing sticks are wall mounted. If mixing sticks covered in paint and affixed to a wall can be considered a “painting,” then the question is begged: At what point does a painting become a painting? When does life begin?
Only one painted image in the show is whole and unintruded upon. Rheila Veilchen Pastillen depicts a packet of pastilles, advertising itself as “since 1924.” The painting (showing the packet only, bereft of context; it’s Pop) hangs on a wall that is covered with aged but still-vibrant vermillion-colored wallpaper, in place (we were informed) since 1925. The painting addresses, selectively, the conditions of its hanging, and the pastille “scents” the room with its own history.
Mirrors are portals. This show opens onto an inward search. Timoney plays his cards close to the vest but autobiography is unavoidable. The Irish painter was displaced from a long-term New York residency during the first wave of COVID-19, eventually landing in Berlin, settled but unsettled. The tongue is foreign. The background shifts. The show’s array of spatial dislocations, which includes “more or less everything I had made since being in Berlin,” mirror Timoney’s own recent history. Anything you need to know can be gleaned from the art on these walls. Yet this, from the hand of a painter’s painter, may be a show for painters. For the layman it will likely be on the mandarin side. At the same time, what is a space like Indipendenza for, if not to occasion high research without commercial concern? waters of night reflects the superstructure of the art context built to give it a reason to exist—not just this temporary physical address but the thought system of visual art.
At the core of Pádraig Timoney’s (b. 1968, Derry, Ireland; lives and works in Berlin) practice is an ongoing investigation into the ways images are constructed, or reconstructed, through painting. Resisting a singular style, Timoney’s works are instead united in approach; each painting aims to seamlessly connect a chosen image with both material and process. Often inventing new processes as a result, the works function as an index or record of decisions made while reveling in the shortcomings in the medium itself. By including errors of translation and faultiness of recognition, abstraction and figuration never seem too far apart, often appearing on the verge of collapsing into one another. Through these divergent modes, Timoney’s exhibitions in turn document a specific duration of time and research in the studio, rather than a traditional artistic thesis. Recent solo exhibitions include Mean While, Farbvision, Berlin (2021); A Silver Key Can Open an Iron Lock Somewhere, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York (2019); TKtitle, Lulu, Mexico City (2018); There Was a Study Done, Cleopatra’s, New York (2017); a lu tiempo de…, curated by Alessandro Rabbotini, Museo Madre, Naples (2014); and Fontwell Helix Feely, Raven Row, London (2013). Recent group shows include gli Incontri Della Luna, Raucci/Santamaria Studio Project, Milan (2022); Il “Valore” dell’Arte, Banca Profilo con Fondazione Per L’Arte, Rome (2019); Mute, Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London (2018); Markers, David Zwirner, London (2017); and The Painting Show, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania (2016).
Rex Reason is a pseudonym, in mothballs since the 1980s, during which decade he regularly wrote and conducted interviews for REAL LIFE Magazine.