To define memory, think about waiting at the airport after your last vacation to a faraway place. Fleeting memories splice together like thin planes and layers washing over one another, changing, receding, and repeating as the memory is compressed and removed from its original moment until it becomes an event in and of itself. The longer I try to define memory, the more I’m reminded of a Tim McFarlane painting. Many sculptors and painters use visual memory to call forth form and subject matter is often a product of personal memories. Tim’s paintings traverse both categories as a structural embodiment of the elusive concept and fabric of memory itself.
On a quest to understand Tim’s work, I visited his Philadelphia studio. There, one finds paintings laden with abstract symbolism and a visual language that is repeated in a same, but different manner, receding, advancing, and sometimes completely wiped out. I was eager to discuss Tim’s current exhibition, installed on the ceiling in Terminal A at the Philadelphia Airport, but when Tim began to discuss his early years as an artist, it was clear that he had a different agenda and something important to say. The Airport project didn’t just show up one day. Rather, it is a step in a long, ongoing inquiry into painting shaped by Tim’s early memories and studies as well as his quest to express something deeper: something existing in the thin spaces between thoughts and memories.
Tim’s early memories include frequent visits to Philadelphia museums and galleries as well as the opportunity to participate in art classes at the Barnes Foundation under the tutelage of Richard Segal, who was also his high school art teacher. Tim, interested in impressionism, explored realistic landscapes and still-lifes during his high school and early college years at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, but life wasn’t always easy. His father passed away while he was in high school, and his mother was occupied with all that accompanied her life during that time. Eventually, Tim put his college education on hold for financial reasons, but he never stopped painting. He continued to soak in as much art as possible by visiting galleries and museums - his interests now turning to abstract painting as he studied modernists, including Franz Kline, Richard Diebenkorn, and Sean Scully.
Tim’s 48 by 48 inch acrylic painting, Double Back (2003) was influenced by Sean Scully. There are indeed similarities with the work of Scully. Plank-like rectangles are arranged vertically on the surface of Double Back, but the painting diverges from Scully’s work particularly with regard to surface and space. While Scully’s paintings exert an all-out effort to keep the eye on the surface, Tim’s attention to the spaces between allows the viewer access into the painting and the process. Departing from Scully’s color palette, cerulean blue, white, and grey rectangles are arranged in front of a rust background. This creates a layer of space behind Tim’s foreground and upsets Scully’s preference for a flat surface with small incidents and gaps in the paint application that allow the viewer to move deeper into the painting. Tim describes Double Back as one of his first attempts to develop a personal visual language and “figure things out.”
As our attention turns to the current paintings on the wall, it’s clear that Tim has figured things out and continues to do so as he moves forward. From painting to painting, history is evident in the repetition of symbols and forms that gradually change ever so slightly through what Tim refers to as “Incidents” that he alternately sets up or allows to occur. A small painting, Transmission (Cosmos), 2016, acrylic on panel, 20 x 16 inches, advances forward in layers painted in shades of silver, gray, and black. Tim describes the slight spaces between layers as metaphors for the spaces between our thoughts and memories. A rectangle with diagonally crisscrossed plank-like forms sits on the surface, presenting an illusion of deeper space. Similar configurations are prominent in other paintings. At first glance, one is reminded of geometric abstraction, but Tim points out a shift in symmetry and the “Incidents” where paint is allowed to seep and negate the possibility of a hard edge. The resulting subversion of the strict order of traditional geometric abstraction is further pushed into our contemporary realm with the introduction of micaceous iron oxide, a shimmering pigment of the twenty-first century.
Tim’s current Philadelphia Airport project, I Wrote Some Poems That You Could See, is a 112 foot square ceiling installation that he has been working on since February of this year, or should I say the 1980s? Here we come full circle with forms that set up overlapping, shallow and deep figure/ground relationships informed by early experiences with landscape and still-life painting. The airport project is comprised of twenty-eight, 24 x 24 inch ceiling tiles. Layers and the diagonal crisscrossing described in Transmission (Cosmos) are prominent in a portion of the paintings while asemic, curvilinear characters similar to written language dominate others. These language-like forms, in development since the 1980s, are layered in various sizes and colors, creating deep space through relationships of scale. Tim uses paint markers, loaded with vibrant greens, yellows, oranges, and pinks, to create them moving from left to right and top to bottom in much the same way that we scan written materials in the Western world. They change ever so slightly from form to form as would writing or memory. Occasionally, they are layered so heavily they begin to transform into something removed from their original source, like travelers’ fleeting memories morphing through their minds as they take in Tim’s energetic, ever-changing poems that they can see: trying to define memory.
“I Wrote Some Poems That You Can See” is on view in Terminal A East at the Philadelphia Airport through summer 2019. Tim is a graduate of Tyler School of Art Temple University and he is represented by Bridgette Mayer Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. Works are also available at Gray Contemporary in Houston, TX, and Philip Slein Gallery in St. Louis, MO. His paintings are currently on view at Trestle Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, and at the Curtis Center in Philadelphia. Tim is a recipient of the Fleisher Art Memorial Challenge Grant, and his work is held in public and private collections throughout the United States. You can learn more about Tim by visiting timmcfarlane.com and following him on Instagram: @timmcfarlaneart.