An essay on Patrick Redmond by Karim White
Painting, for Pat Redmond,
comes before anything else. Working from a converted room
in his house, he will often paint late into the night, preferring
to complete a painting in three or four days. Sometimes
the intensity and single-mindedness with which he paints
will mean that he loses all sense of time. And when the
piece is finished, he is invariably restless and unsatisfied
and barely stops to give the painting a title before seizing
upon the next subject.
More curious still, Redmond admits to harbouring equivocal
feelings about many of his subjects. When pressed, he confesses complicated feelings about
his subjects which amount to a sort of haunting that he
recognises as stemming from his youth: As a child,
I had three absurd, pathological fears: the record player,
Chef brown sauce and Camel cigarettes. Redmond can
link these objects to personally unsettling events and dreams
and knowing this, it becomes irresistible to speculate on
the painter's relationship with the subjects of his paintings.
In a manner analogous to Freud's formulation of 'The Theory
of the Uncanny', Redmond's paintings of shoes, receptacles
with mysterious contents, a box of Kleenex, children's confectionery
and arresting portraits, synecdochally suggest repressed
episodes from a personal and social history.
The word 'uncanny' has come to be defined as anything strange
or mysterious and is derived from the now obsolete use of
'can' to mean 'know'. Hence, 'canny' for 'knowing'. Thus
the 'uncanny' equals the 'unknown' or to put it another
way, 'the unconscious'. Freud's term for the 'uncanny' is
Das Unheimlich which literally translates as 'the unhomely'.
In the context of Redmond's use of everyday objects, the
German idiom suits us very well, especially because these
seductive, photo-realistic pieces seem to have been distilled
from such a peculiarly psychological intensity.
Freud developed his theory of 'the uncanny' out of earlier
ideas from Friedrich Schelling as a way to explain certain
neurotic symptoms he encountered in his patients and that
he described in 'Studies on Hysteria'. The 'uncanny' is
that which was meant to have remained hidden but which
has come to light. It is that thing which inexplicably
induces discomfort or fear because it is in actuality the
trace of a forgotten trauma. Like a flag or a buoy, the
'uncanny' marks the fearful point where knowledge has sunk
beneath the surface into the unconscious mind.
Freud's famous example from 1892 is that of the case of
Miss Lucy R., a Scottish governess living in Vienna who
was suffering from olfactory hallucinations of burnt pudding.
Freud rediscovered the traumatic point at which the smell
of burnt pudding became divorced from its context and transformed
into the 'uncanny' symptom.
Lucy had been in unrequited love with her employer for some
time, but had lately come to believe that her affections
would be reciprocated. But this hope had been suddenly crushed
when her employer severely scolded her and threatened her
with dismissal for allowing some guests to embrace and kiss
his children. Lucy, in her distress, had then written a
letter to her mother expressing a desire to return home
to Glasgow but when the reply came, the children made a
game out of hiding it from her. Driven to distraction, Lucy
tried to retrieve the letter while the pudding she was baking
burned in the oven. After a short period, the hallucinations
began as a symbolic reminder of the lost trauma.
Looking around at the images in Pat Redmond's latest exhibition
is like participating in the enantiodromia of many homely
objects becoming 'unhomely', transformed by the painterly
act. Some paintings openly declare their mystery and uncanniness.
What, for example, is inside the crumpled paper bag or the
foil sachet or the cardboard box? What hitherto hidden thing
is about to come to light? By situating the viewer at the
triggering point of a neurosis, Redmond is able to induce
powerful feelings of anxiety in the viewer.
Redmond especially induces this anxiety in himself. In the
paintings of twisted and knotted sheets for example, Redmond
sometimes conceals dolls within the folds. It is impossible
to tell when looking at the painting what, if anything,
is hidden inside the sheet and so it would seem that for
Redmond, this ritualistic measure is an essential mechanism
of the anxiety driven painting process.
The strength of the mechanism has its roots, as Freud has
suggested, in the child's experience of the lack of distinction
between animate and inanimate objects. Compounded with the
phenomenon of projection, children can develop highly articulated
lives for their toys. When, in adulthood, we encounter dolls,
they re-activate our infantile beliefs about them. Unsurprisingly
then, dolls are one of the classic images of 'the uncanny'
as utilised in Gothic literature and horror films. Mike
Kelley's exhibition 'The Uncanny' at Tate Liverpool in 2004
dedicated a large part of its exploration to the presence
of dolls, mannequins and other metaphors of human automata
within cultural expressions of the 'uncanny'. As artificial
reproductions of nature, the doll is also intimately linked
to another major exemplar of the 'uncanny' - the figure
of the doppelganger or 'double' which according to Freud
is the outward visualisation of the unconscious mind perceived
as the double of the conscious mind. But of course, Redmond
has only played this game of doubling with himself to better
enact the doubling of the material object onto the canvas.
He simulates an 'uncanny' situation to initiate a psychic
dynamic that, in turn, is translated to the painting.
Elsewhere however, Redmond draws upon collective anxieties
at work in modern culture. The empty, greasy McDonalds fries
container, Oldenburg style cheeseburger and the scenes from
Eddie Rockets from his solo exhibition in 2003 reviewed
discredited fast food culture through the darkened lens
of Pop Art, rendering the hitherto merely meretricious oddly
depressive. In the paintings of Liquorice Allsorts or the
deliquescent Bullseyes from 2004, the already artificial
colours are heightened to become lurid and still more synthetic
in appearance. In his imagination, Redmond has linked these
confections to the 'lures' proffered by strangers to unwary
children. This and other paintings since explore the death
of innocence in an 'age of fear'. Enlarging on this theme,
Redmond has spoken of his desire to paint clowns and one
clown in particular dominates his thoughts: John Wayne Gacey
Jr., the Chicago serial child killer. Recently made the
subject of a terrifying song by Sufjan Stevens, Gacey used
to dress up as a clown to perform his ritualised murders
before burying the bodies under the floorboards of his house.
Like many other people, Redmond acutely fears the sinister
aesthetic and function of the clown and now there seems
to be something deeply 'uncanny' in the fact that these
deeply frightening characters could ever have been deemed
suitable entertainment for children - or is this perhaps
itself a reflection of the mediation of the 'uncanny' through
television and film that has made the clown into an 'uncanny'
But for now, Redmond's preference is to paint the material
objects in a way that suggests crimes and traumas rather
than paint the perpetrators themselves. Whether that is
because to paint a portrait of someone like Gacey (even
from photographs) is too direct and threatening a strategy
for representing evil is debatable. As Hannah Arendt observed
during the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, material objects
by themselves can be every bit as potent: Ashtrays,
lampshades, quotidian objects and prostheses of a life where
the banality of evil, its ordinariness, is far more terrifying
than all the atrocities put together.
Two recent portraits, one of which is included in this exhibition
are of friends of the painter and while they are certainly
not 'easy' portraits they aren't exactly 'uncanny' either.
But although Raymond*, a cerebral palsy sufferer, evokes
pathos in a sympathetic viewer, it is possible to conceive
of it creating alarm too, especially in a child who has
had little or no experience of people with disabilities.
In a different, more combative way, the hard stare of the
expression in Richard is difficult because it is so confrontational.
In both cases too, the giant scale of the heads does produce
a startling effect.
At the very deepest end of Redmond's tendency to produce
'uncanny' effects are the paintings of shoes. Chosen for
their shabbiness, these objects bear only the most fleeting
of resemblances to the seductive shoes in a work by Sylvie
Fleury. Redmond's shoes are the most unworthy of commodity
fetishism. They are at the end of their lifespan, they have
been abandoned and have almost expired, breathing the half-life
of the car boot sale. Their surfaces have been bent, eroded,
stained and stretched and in their numerousness suggest
an infinity of detritus.
The painting of the box of Kleenex is also actually a painting
of shoes being a double reference to the aviator and film-maker,
Howard Hughes, who in the early stages of his obsessive-compulsive
disorder, handled all objects through an insulating layer
of bacteria blocking Kleenex, but who also, at the very
nadir of his decline was alleged to have been seen wearing
the empty Kleenex boxes on his feet.
In another shoe painting, the shoes are piled up haphazardly
in the manner of a jumble sale but they inevitably suggest,
as Redmond himself is aware, the horror of the Holocaust.
It needn't be Redmond's intention, it is more that the growth
of the 'uncanny' from a symptom into a sensibility means
that all images of the compellingly strange and unspeakable
are drawn into its frame of reference.
That Redmond is so alert to the uncanniness in modern culture
has to do with the extent to which he himself is an agent
of its proliferation. To have adopted the 'uncanny', it's
doubling and to have re-articulated it in art is to have
re-doubled it. Freud saw himself that his own development
of psychoanalytic language effected the same redoubling,
remarking: Indeed, I should not be surprised to hear
that psychoanalysis which is concerned with laying bare
these hidden forces has itself become 'uncanny' for that
Certainly it was my attraction to Redmond's 'uncanny' visions
that led me to volunteer my pair of lemon-ish yellow platform
shoes as a subject for one of his paintings. Dating from
the seventies but standing as they do at the centre of one
particular adolescent drama on Brighton Beach in the nineties,
I have always felt more than a little conflicted about them.
Seeing them now, doubled once more under Pat Redmond's gaze,
I see that they have only gained in their uncanny power.
Now, if I can only remember why...