The bifurcations of bilge

Posted on 18th April 2015

Being some meditations on memorable canteen medals, banned comics, art dealers, and other diversions of an amusing and entertaining manner.

I have been making art since infancy and I am reliably told that my first drawings were squiggles, wobbling circles (possibly depictions of globular, blob-shaped people) drawn clumsily, with lumps of coal, on skirting boards and walls. Later on, I adapted my picture making skills to cover stones and offcuts of board found in the local car park, where I played and made secret dens often in the weed choked spaces between buildings. I also drew directly into the mud with a stick, where car oil had seeped, turning it into a dense, foul smelling ichor, which I criss-crossed with gouged lines, asymmetrical lattices, and strange enclaves of meandering lines. Such pictograms bring to mind Paul Klee’s spare, linear drawing of a woodlouse in a cage-like structure drawn shortly before his death in 1940, or his minimalist rendering of Der Schrank – the cupboard – which inspired me to make a performance (of the same name) at the Kunstlerforum in Bonn, Germany (2012) in a museum room with a large concealed cavity.

Thus, in my youth, I would scrape vigorously at the blackened filth, marking out leering animal faces, grimacing, fanged monsters, augmenting them with frenetic chevrons – to a lesser or greater extent I am still doing this today, except in paint, not dirt. Really though, you must find your own way in the world of art and avoid the temptation to be moulded into a nodding acolyte, who contributes to a mediocre house style merely to fit in with some lank haired, middle aged degenerate, running an ostentatious broom cupboard that masquerades as an art gallery. When I enter such a temple of pretence and see a canvas with ‘Fuck Off’ painted on it, I know that this is rubbish posturing ludicrously as art. It is deliberately hyper -inflated in a febrile attempt to be shocking and controversial. I recall an incident from my student years in which one tutor, an old Etonian, who sported oversized spectacles of the sort worn by the 1980’s TV comedienne Su Pollard , earnestly describing the college approach to teaching students as ‘basically, what we do here is called fuck-off art’. The same ‘artist’ enjoyed a moderate period of fame in the early 1980’s for making a sculpture out of an old galvanised steel bath and welded sardine tin, then named it after the General Belgrano battleship which was sunk during the Falkland’s War. He obviously found his ‘fuck off’ moment to be rather poignant and will go down in history ( not unlike the General Belgrano) as the man who fashioned war ships from used sardine cans.

Years of possibly quite useless study and training have led me to a complete unlearning process, in which I have evolved my own visual vocabulary which is still expanding and leaching out to find a habitable ledge or plateau. I call this process: edible darkness of pink machinery. However, the vituperative ignoramus will always be quick to say, ‘that reminds me of so and so’ with a smug little smile rehearsed and refined many times at preparatory school, as if to reiterate their own banal lack of engagement with a painting or drawing. The custom that such superior people should patronise an artist by coming up with a trite comparison, no matter how vague or obtuse, will always be the tried and tested method by which an effete art dealer will spitefully attempt to undermine an artist’s efforts, no doubt, to show them who is the real supremo when it comes to art. Leaving aside the rampant snobbery and toxic digressions for which an entirely devoted study along these lines should be assiduously devoted, I must now recall with some fondness, as a method of salvaging this essay from the existential void it veers towards, the cherished scribbles of my childhood. These were influenced by a deep rooted fascination with the gruesome horror cartoon strips published by the infamous EC comics. Such graphic stories were considered too sick and twisted for juvenile minds by adults who were probably already significantly depraved enough, and the comics were summarily banned in the USA. However, I was quick to learn that things which are often censored often have the habit of resurfacing, and are easy enough to intercept given the right circumstance and a catalyst. Hours of secretive reading were spent at Mr G’s newsagent shop – a completely filthy, obsessively cluttered little room, illuminated by a single yellow light bulb hanging from a cobwebbed wire impregnated with decades of grime and frazzled bluebottle cadavers. The portly, spectacled, G, sported an interesting array of crusted canteen medals, dribbled and meandering to form rivulets of congealed soup, tributaries of tea, and trickled sauces forming a sluggish delta fanning out down the front of his sweater, where one could usually discern what he had been gorging the night before by scrutinising the bifurcations of bilge. Frequently ensconced in venomous bickering matches with his long suffering wife, G paid no attention to the morbid predilections of a boy rifling through toppling piles of comics. As the insults and opprobrium were traded back and forth with increasing drama and volume, I entered an immersive world of fantasy, science fiction and terror, through the ghoulish pages, lurid captions, and macabre story lines about death, disfigurement, dismemberment, and zombification. How I longed to be a character in those elegantly stylised and cross hatched 1950’s pen and ink stories! I often fantasised about the chubby, balding, Hugo Klagg, imprisoned in his impenetrable atomic bunker, waiting for an Armageddon that never came, or the stick-thin people that looked like reanimated corpses of the Arthur Grimsdyke variety (apologies to Tales of the Crypt ), who fed on live rats and lichen in tunnels beneath great dystopian cities in the year 2265 AD. This was the meat and grist of my real education, not the routine spoon-fed continuum of school, with its relentless repertoire of pea-brained lessons designed for a breed of barely human sub-species to learn by rote. I would visit this dingy hole in the wall every week and by the meagre light of that 40 watt bulb count out the sweaty, jangling coins, to see how many comics I could acquire. The chronologically challenging photograph below shows me as a young student of the outré reading a typical publication of this kind, reinforcing the psychological influence that such exposure would later have on my life and ‘work’ as an artist of ‘neo-noir psychological horror’*.

shaun

Periodically, I would go on a trip to London by train, specifically to visit the mecca of all comic shops, ‘Bright They Were and Golden Eyed’ – the name of which was taken from a short story by the celebrated American fantasy writer Ray Bradbury. The shop was a cavernous haven for all fledgling weirdos feverishly perusing the cellophane bags in which the disturbing comics were tantalisingly sealed. Such a mass of barbaric and shocking reading material would invariably satiate the most diligent enthusiast of the grotesque and possibly last for a considerable time. All the comics bought on these spur-of-the-moment visits would be read many times over with renewed relish and I would ruminate on onomatopoeic words such as ‘SHUNK’ for pure nerve tingling effect as they appeared on the pages adjacent to images of violent murder and butchery usually committed by infants against their dim-witted parents. Having momentarily slaked my thirst for supernatural comic books, I would often walk around the seedy streets of Soho, and upon occasion, watch some urbane drunkards stumbling incoherently, squabbling and blubbering over the remaining dregs of liquor left in an accidentally spilled bottle, in a routine that bordered on the vaudeville routines of yesteryear. I remember vividly, the swollen, saturnine features of one man in this motley crew of imbibers, who donned a rubber traffic cone and wore it on his head like a proverbial dunce’s cap (a character reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘King Pest’) – leering lewdly, and obscenely at the bemused passer’s by with the studied indifference that inebriation so often engenders. It seemed to my youthful eyes that the world of the ‘big smoke’ was populated by the stereotypes of catastrophic losers as depicted in the comics I so ardently sought. Ironically, Edgar Allan Poe died aged 40, an insensible alcoholic, raving and penniless in 1849.

I am a connoisseur par excellence of ethnographic art and spend a lot of time visiting museum collections to absorb the culture and aesthetic of non-Western expression in art. There is something truly momentous to be discovered in the mystifying objects contained in museum vitrines, which are the cemeteries of now obsolete memories. Studying African fetishes enables me to bypass the blatant idiocy of much contemporary art, which encroaches and suffocates us with its whimsical opportunism and crass lack of meaning. Studying non-western art helps to ameliorate the glib one-liner culture of laconic pastiche in contemporary art and its nihilistic fellowship of dunderheads playing at being artists. It enables momentary relief from the glorification of capitalist cynicism as its own vacuous endgame. The amazing masks, figurines, carvings and totems presented in cabinets appear regularly in my imagery, like players in scenes from mysterious performances which have been shuffled into an imaginary slide projector and await the impatient click of a thumb to reveal a clandestine, flickering world of strange and incomprehensible juju to us. Collecting objects imbued with an enigmatic, indefinable presence makes me want to translate or transport this nuance into a painting. Perhaps I want to have a discourse with the essence of the object by making a picture that becomes it? A somewhat world-weary acquaintance of mine, favours a clumsy form of witticism , remarked to general surprise, that artists want to ‘ eat, bathe, sleep and have sex’ with such power objects. The objects’ inherent allure draws us in like the miasma surrounding a dissipating dream.

I have had a frightening dream about a café on a bridge above a fast moving river, where I would meet Mr M and DM most Saturday afternoons. Mr M would push used teabags into his eyes to extract the astringent properties of the tea, whilst squirting a cold trickle of PG Tips down his cheeks much to the shame of his prim wife and the bemused glances and smirks of fellow diners. In this particular dream, the café is empty and semi-derelict, the owners have abandoned it because it is full of evil. The dream is an exaggerated sense of dread as I enter and turn around a heavy gilt mirror blackened with age, hanging on the wall, to see symbols and script associated with the occult and black magic chalked behind it. This writing is arcane and as soon as it is read begins to spread quickly, expanding across the room with great rapidity, like the tendrils of some malignant weed. It soon becomes apparent that the wall is hollow and contains the skulls of infants deposited there as human sacrifices in nefarious rites. A low murmuring emanates from the wall and soon builds to a steady thrum of infantile sobbing. Extracting the tiny skulls from the cavity only worsens the potential for harm by exposing the spell to the surrounding neighbourhood and its denizens, infecting them with a form of insanity. A school nearby is affected, and the children all develop monstrous enlargements of their own skulls and their hideous faces turn red with boils and sores. I awaken in great fear at 7.04 am, the date is 13.01.2015

I am also hooked on paint as a substance, or what I have come to call the prima materia, which by some primordial rule of alchemy allows me to transform objects into subjects and describe them in a language of muted gestures and subliminal grunts – inevitably this will become the language of a post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic future in which art has no monetary value and its meaning is purely symbolic or metaphorical. In attempting to elucidate an image I am not merely representing a competent pictorial scheme. Instead, I am giving birth to the image from the visceral stuff which paint is composed of, allowing the materials to part dictate what may emerge through gobbets, smears, scabrous encrustations and spectacular bleeds. Like a séance, the metamorphic figures and forms emerging in my pictures crawl from the unimaginable plasticity of paint, which is a kind of voluble ectoplasm impregnated into the pores of the canvas or paper. The artist then, is an activator of the image, working rather like a shaman to tease out the spirit (animus) of the picture through the ritual act of painting (a performance). Most of the time I don’t know what I am going to paint and I rarely work from sketches because it makes a picture look too contrived and premeditated. Instead, I prefer the results to be spontaneous manifestations of some unknown realm that I am repeatedly tapping into through a semi-trance like state. I rely on the willed intuition of chance and imagination to guide me through the many whiteout over-paintings, until I hit upon something that gives me the feeling that it is authentic and compelling.

My images are sometimes encountered with clusters of words or poems.

… shelved trenches trickle,
spindles & curls notch breath & bone dreams
layered edges of dust spirals.
Dead fingerplay in green and red powder.
Broken in two, the shrine mound heaves,
slope, quad, spikes, smell of ectoplasm,
ghosts living in the bricked up wall.
drawings: maps, ancient pathways, lost voices.

I am not concerned though, with atrophied convention and once unearthed, language is uneasily scripted or scored into a compatible system of logic. Instead, it suggests a deviant gambit in which chance and synchronicity move towards very potent possibilities that I atavistically ‘know’ how to evoke. I am seeking something that gives stronger sensation, a potential to create fluctuations and tensions that occur and disappear during repeated hand and eye action. In order to seize this power it is necessary to lose a lot of images, some of them very good and promising. By avoiding complacency and the convenience of labelling (imposed upon artists by galleries) it is possible to approach a new, uncorrupted vision and trust atavistic impulses, rather than rely on a few studied tricks that can be trotted out with the regularity of a spectacularly virulent fart ignited by a lit match.

Whilst visiting Naples recently, I stumbled across a tour of the catacombs in the church of San Guadioso. Through a narrow doorway at the back of the church, I descended stone steps into a dank and dripping vault that was not dissimilar to one of Piranesi’s chiaroscuro depictions of carceri, only in this circumstance there were no heaving pulley systems and clanking chains. Here, in this subterranean world I noted the blistered and flaking murals painted onto plaster coated walls, showing the souls of the damned writhing in purgatorial flames with suitably rendered grimaces. Strange assemblages of human bones and skulls concocted in the 17th century greeted me in a mock gallery of death. At this point I am reminded of one peculiar Australian art dealer I encountered in the early 1990’s who somewhat resembled a shrivelled demon, and I include a fitting match with his likeness (below) with this article. This East End purveyor of big abstract daubs of the meaty variety, was no newcomer to the chicanery of pedalling pictures, and sported a sweep over style coiffure as an unconvincing disguise for his obvious baldness. ‘Are you hot stuff?’ I recall him asking me over the ‘phone in an Antipodian nasal quip, ‘Can I sell your paintings to the Museum of Modern Art in New York?’ he jibed. Of course he could, and what an opportunity that would be I thought. Naturally, I received the colour transparencies of my paintings back through the post after numerous prompts and reminders, all inserted in the wrong pockets and covered in sticky thumb prints. ‘Don’t ring us again, there’s really no need’ he rasped before slamming down the receiver. Our encounters did not however, terminate here. I spotted him several times in a local supermarket where he treated the sales assistant to some of his pomposity and acerbic comments, quick to remind everyone of his authority. I almost felt like I was a stalker in someone else’s bad dream. On another happenstance occasion, I sat behind him on a bus and marveled at how he had stuck down what remained of his hair to form a sort of congealed cap which covered the lunar surface of his skull. It is fascinating to observe the countenance and appearance of horribly unpleasant people who populate the art world for periods of time.

Mummified head

Back in the crouching underbelly of the Naples church, jewel like beads of moisture sweated through the rock and seemed to wriggle down the stylized bodices of women like the tears of the dead weeping for a sinful mankind. Souvenir hunters have broken off the jaw bones of skulls as memento mori and scrawled flamboyant, baroque signatures in a mass of seething graffiti loops that in some places obliterate the paintings completely. I wandered cautiously into a sloping chamber of irregularly shaped alcoves that could easily be mistaken for one of the film sets in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919, Germany) – here the corpses of dignitaries were once punctured and ‘cured’ with lances and ‘bled’ in an enervating mummification and drying-out process. The stains left indelible brown blotches to remind us of the gory goings on down below. I wondered why I am led to explore such spaces as prehistoric caves, catacombs, and tunnels and then remembered my juvenile fascination with the comic book scenarios and story lines, most of which involved underground dwellings. What stupefaction do these uterine conduits and passageways to the land of the dead still hold over me? It’s an addiction of sorts, and I am an unwitting explorer of the dark by instinct. Even my student thesis on the nature of ritual and performance, was summarily sealed in a black box with, ‘The answer lies within’ taped to the cover of the box. The examiner liked my style so much he gave me a good grade and probably didn’t even bother to read the absurd mumbo-jumbo I had laboriously penned, pretending to be a scholar of the dark stuff. Such are the delusions of youth.

san-gaudioso-catacombs

‘Dawn of a New Age’, February 2015. I have been working on a large painting in a palette of browns, blacks and ochre. The theme has traveled with me for 30 years and finally I have extracted it from my imagination. One visitor to my recent London exhibition, PRIMORIDAL ALCHEMY remarked that it was ‘wonderfully post-apocalyptic’ and another artist friend observed, ‘I hope that painting isn’t prophetic in any way. I mean, who would want to live in a time like that?’ Another mature lady, clambering about with a Zimmer frame, stopped me and commented, ‘if that’s art then I must be a bloody philistine’. The image shows several figures surrounded by a collection of painted stones (the Mas d’Azil Mesolithic stones) of varying sizes filched from a dried up river. Figures emerge from a dark ground made up of quick strokes and splotches of layered, tumescent paint that heaves with a larval tension. One could almost imagine the totems in this image have been excavated from an encroaching blackness or the slurry of a river’s silt, spat out in a bolus of feculent, archaic phlegm. The bloated, legless, egg figure is holding her human sacrifices over an altar – they are her own children that will be devoured. In a time without food, cannibalism is the most practical solution for the urgent pangs of hunger. ‘A Modest Proposal’ (satirical 1729 text by Jonathan Swift) is percolating through the subliminal story behind this picture yet somehow it has been transported into the not so distant future and no longer resides in the satire of Swift’s outrageous humour. The rest of the painting is a profound mystery to me and I have not had time to divulge its inner significance yet. At best, I am dealing with an elusive and horrifying imagery which stems from nightmare scenarios that are a world away from the diluted, CGI fantasies of recent Hollywood films such as The Road. By painting it, one is making it more spellbinding and tactile than a film, which gives you everything and nothing simultaneously. The painting is more raw and visceral. Probably, it’s the stranger in the dark that grows stranger by the hour. Whilst reading an article on mites in the National Geographic magazine, I was struck by the fact that they feed on human skin and live around nasal, eyebrow and pubic hair. They gorge and gorge, getting fatter and fatter. Often they eat their own mothers. When they have eaten too much they cannot excrete it out and simply explode, dying in the process of gluttony. I begin to realize how staggeringly relevant the microcosm of the mite is to the world of art dealers and commerce, there are so many juxtapositions to be elucidated and compared here. Perhaps too, the mite is a pertinent metaphor for the artist, working in virtual isolation from society, producing art work in an endlessly creative cycle – which to some would appear to be only a matter of excrement and excreting – who despite the endless sarcasm, hypocrisy, the knocks and set-backs of decades, continues in an unyielding desire for truth and clarity only to realize that it is all folly in the end anyway.

yellow-mite

January-April 2015. Naples, London.

Notes:
*Exeunt Magazine November 2014, author Amelia Forsdyke.