What do we mean when we say that an artwork is playful, difficult, beautiful or demanding? According to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, there are essentially two approaches: the first, he writes, has no standard other than feeling whilst the second is all logic.
In these paintings we are presented with a third possibility: the pleasure to be found in the incongruous. Instead of continuity and regularity, we find humour and displacement: small pockets of resistance, not large enough to bring us to a halt, but large enough to give pause for thought, an opportunity to enjoy the playfulness between pleasure and comprehension, between manner and method, between image and text. We find at stake not only our preconceived notions of meaning but also our preconceived notions of taste. And in this disparity there is beauty, warmth, charm and amusement.
The images, drawn from publications created for purposes of education, explanation or instruction, have their original intention governed by needs both utilitarian and functional. They all share the common process of being removed or displaced from their original context: orphaned, errant and reassembled. The ‘disjunctive of narratives’ sourced from daily horoscope readings then adds a vague personal tone and stand in relation to the paintings as ‘displacements’ offering a sharp counterpoint to the images under which they are pinned.
Whereas the images give focus to the movement of the body in space, practical instructions for practical ends, the readings give rise instead to abstract and less definable applications of thought: around notions of self, identity, character, insecurity and even free will. Weighty themes, but treated here with a light touch that knows the weight of the narrative under focus. The artist doesn’t charge us to dwell too long on any one individual aspect: the relation itself between the disparate parts, and the painterly process underpinning them, being the real subject of the work.
In the final analysis, what are we to make of these works? We cannot happily fall back on Kant’s formula, of seeing them in terms of an aesthetics of pleasure or an aesthetics of comprehension. Our standard values of taste are displaced or at least challenged. But this is only half the story: the story of isolated and displaced narratives. The other half, that of the process, actively encourages a visceral engagement with the material: in this they are playful, detailed, subtle, serious and precise. And if we wish them to be so, they are also distant and challenging.
For the meaning between image, text and process is based on a relation that is always, only partly fulfilled: they flirt with us, and in this they ask us to consider our own position as viewers, our own position as makers of narrative and our own position as makers of meaning.
by Stephen McNeilly