Long Form ~ Mark Swords by James Merrigan

Joaquin Phoenix reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) in sex shop; from Joel Schumacker’s 8mm (1999). 

Joaquin Phoenix reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) in sex shop; from Joel Schumacker’s 8mm (1999). 

 

Context : Mark Swords

Every now and then Mark Swords and I meet for a coffee to discuss art-making and the Irish art scene in a small coffee shop in Gorey Town: we both tutor at Gorey School of Art (GSA). We usually end up talking about painting because Mark Swords paints and I'm into talking to painters about the stubborn nature and nurture of painting.

Recently I brought up a painting that Mark painted in 2012 titled Forgery (pictured below); a painting I fell in love with when I co-selected it as part of the group exhibition 'Making Familiar' at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, Dublin.

 
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The painting in question wasn't the type of Mark Swords painting I had come to know and accept as a 'Mark Swords' painting at the time. Sure, the hallmarks were there—a collage of shapes somehow falling together and falling apart like a teenage summer romance. But this one-off painting felt like it had escaped the studio prematurely, looking more like a working palette for a more resolved painting that was already out in the world somewhere. But unlike some painters not noticing their palettes performing better than their paintings, Mark saw enough value in this thing to pack it into the car and put it out there in the 'maybe bunch' for the exhibition.

What attracted me to this painting first was... it was active, a work-in-progress. Primary colours were unmixed in parts while blue, yellow and red became the under-crust of shitty browns elsewhere. There was an erotic slit down the middle of the primed slab of wood on which these colours sulked and played together. It was a painting by a man who wanted to be a child, or a child who wanted to be a man, or a little of both: it was a transworld of thresholds. It could have went either way but we would never know because Mark stopped at the wrong moment. It was a maybe. It was an almost... it was almost a Mark Swords.

Five years on that painting still drops in on my brain. My first memory of the painting is of it propped up against the gallery wall among a lineup of certainties but I picked this wife beater. It jarred the whole exhibition, even with Paul Doran's paintings alongside; but it gave me joy and it formed a stubborn memory that I will probably never shift.

Mark's current solo show at TBG&S has a whole lot of the stuff that made Forgery so obstinate and verbose and good. As promo for a talk that he was giving on the show at TBG&S Mark posted an in-profile selfie on Instagram in which he is performing a 'silent' shout or scream or yawn against a shelf of books. It made me laugh and balk much the same way his paintings make me laugh and balk.

 
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In the coffee shop I brought up the question of 'response' to Mark's work at TBG&S. He had got some; during the opening and during the talk. He was relatively happy, considering what he had said to me before about the "100% experience" of process versus the 'eh' (my exclamation) of everything afterwards.

So I shared my experience of the exhibition with him—no questions just my experience because it's less evasive. First, it reminded me of Forgery. Then it made me laugh inwardly, like an in-joke for one. I brought up comedy, he brought up Stewart Lee; he brought up carnival, I thought Mikhail Bakhtin; he brought up notions of coyness and discovery and necessary ambiguity; I brought up exhibiting explicit self-awareness and sincerity; we brought up a whole lot of 'what ifs' and I said his show was a criticism of painting. He was about to respond but lunch was over.

After lunch we walked back to GSA and I suggested we make this into an interview that started mid-sentence without all the introductory niceties.

Here it is.

 
Mark Swords, 'The Living and The Dead', Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin; 15 April - 17 June 2017: photo: Peter Rowan

Mark Swords, 'The Living and The Dead', Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin; 15 April - 17 June 2017: photo: Peter Rowan

 

James Merrigan: Before I get to the question of your show at TBG&S being a criticism of painting... no, forget that, is your show a criticism of painting? Maybe you could describe what you have done in the gallery?

Mark Swords: The show is a collection of work (some 30 pieces) made over the last three years, but, more than that, it is an experiment in terms of installation that has been developing in my head for the last couple of years. Nearly all the work in the show has been hung against various patterned and painted wall coverings. The paintings are quite close together and so there's not a lot of space in the show; it looks very dense and complex.

 
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The answer to your question is: no. This show is probably many things before it is a criticism of painting although I would acknowledge that I make work as much informed by my criticisms of other artworks as it is by what I value. So, for example there are a lot of approaches and techniques which are absent from my work because I feel that they are not part of what is exciting and interesting about painting. I think many artist's work can be seen as putting forward a case for their position and so, by implication a case against what they do not value.

Maybe painting more than other mediums has all this space around it. Space that focuses our attention on the artwork which reflects some aspect of the world (depending on the artist's intentions). And that is great. I have enjoyed that in the past and probably will again in the future. But for some time I have been interested in experimenting with this and wanting to deny all that space. I  was curious to try to mimic the world and the way we experience it—everything together, unedited, unpredictable, exciting, contradictory.

But I am interested in how it could be viewed as a criticism of painting? Is that because of the paintings themselves or the installation. Or, more appropriately maybe, both; and the ways in which the installation gets in the way of viewing the pieces in a more conventional way?

 
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JM: Perhaps my question about your current work at TBG&S being a criticism of painting should be rephrased with the help of your response about the denial and replacement of the negative space that usually surrounds painting in the gallery with your use of this carnival backdrop of colour and texture. This is a big twist in the tale of what I have come to accept as a 'Mark Swords' exhibition, and can't be waved away as merely an experiment, especially in terms of a painter who has developed a recognisable and established identity over a good many years and is also represented by a gallery that deals not just in objects but the luxurious white wall that isolates painting and gives it its object value.

However, the notion that you're denying the conventional breathing space to experience and judge the objet d'art that is painting as a criticism of painting could be transferred to the notion that this display is a criticism of Mark Swords the Earlier, the Previous, the Younger, Lol? Further, you have placed one painting in the gallery that performs in splendid isolation. Is this a lonely signpost to the past?

 
Mark Swords, 'The Living and The Dead', Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin; 15 April - 17 June 2017: photo: Peter Rowan

Mark Swords, 'The Living and The Dead', Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin; 15 April - 17 June 2017: photo: Peter Rowan

 

MS: Yes, there are criticisms of my previous work in 'The living and the dead' but not condemnation. That is probably natural for an artist and is certainly true of any new body of work I have made.

The most significant criticism of "Mark Swords the Earlier" as you put it is not the use of the gallery walls per se, it's more the inexperience and naivety of not questioning the conventions of exhibitions. I am starting to think that an artist can hide behind the conventions of the gallery; that, and ambiguity.

I remember listening to someone who had been present at early peace talks between The Provisional IRA and British representatives and they used the term 'constructive ambiguity' in relation to language. I thought it useful to re-appropriate that term to art-making—to create space and room for different interpretations. I think I have done this a lot in past exhibitions without consciously doing so. In my current show there are a number of different things I am doing to address my self-criticisms and my attempts to be more up front about how and what I am doing in my work: writing directly onto the paintings, an openness to subject matter, and the installation itself to name a few.

 
Mark Swords, 'The Living and The Dead', Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin; 15 April - 17 June 2017: photo: Peter Rowan

Mark Swords, 'The Living and The Dead', Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin; 15 April - 17 June 2017: photo: Peter Rowan

 

But I think you may be underestimating the importance of experimentation for me. I don't mean to diminish the installation of 'The living and the dead' by describing it as an experiment ("merely an experiment”), but it began as an experiment in the studio and progressed into something more substantial as it became an abstract depiction of a place. This is the same thought process (of trying and testing) and the same artist who made Forgery, the painting you discussed in your intro. Most of the reasons I made that piece were to do with the things (I thought then) one should not do as an artist: so, appropriating another person's decisions about form and colour; celebrating crudeness in terms of execution and allowing myself to make a piece of work that did not 'fit' with its peers—a hiccup. And I should admit to an attitude of testing rules, poking at my own assumptions or, as other people may see it, being mischievous; a miscreant perhaps.

I am immediately anxious about the tone of self promotion in what I am saying here, maybe because it is written instead of spoken. I am not operating under the assumption that what I am doing is significantly ground breaking or challenging or that these things have not been explored more succinctly by better artists many years ago. Sometimes art history can excite and embarrass us and make me feel very conservative.

 
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JM: Okay. Let’s take all this from another angle by discussing something less cerebral and critical—pleasure.

In previous conversations we have discussed the pleasure in the process of making paintings. When I was with your work in TBG&S I got the same giddy feeling that I get sometimes when I visit an artist’s studio. I can only call it surprise mixed with pleasure. I don’t get this feeling often in the gallery space. I got it from Mary Heilmann’s paintings at the Whitechapel Gallery London last year. When I don’t get it I put it down to the studio experience vs. the gallery experience: the studio being a place of play and risk, experimentation and excess; the gallery being an endpoint to that play and risk, experimentation and excess. The exhibition is of course a necessity because all that play and risk, experimentation and excess can only end up destructive if it doesn’t have an endpoint where the process is framed and isolated by the white walls of the gallery to be appreciated as a cerebral and emotive event and so forth. But I have to admit that sometimes the artist’s studio reflects all the excess of the “unedited” world that you speak of better than the exhibition ever could.

Your work at TBG&S (in my experience of it) had the feeling of the artist’s studio about it. The play and risk, experimentation and excess wasn’t as distilled as it could have been if you hadn’t denied so much white-walled gallery space and substituted it with this carnival of colour. There are paintings in that big mattress of paintings at TBG&S that wouldn’t have made the cut of a Mark Swords The Earlier exhibition. That’s why when you mentioned “carnival” the other day as defined as the collapsing of hierarchies and societal norms I thought immediately of Mikhail Bakhtin. I wrote an art college thesis on Bakhtin’s carnival in relation to painting and other stuff back in 2004. What I took from Bakhtin’s theory of carnival (aside from the political upending of society) was the pleasure one gets when the playing field is levelled and the rules are broken.

 
Stewart Lee on stage.

Stewart Lee on stage.

 

So in short what I am wondering is, by experimenting in this way at TBG&S and breaking a few of your own rules in the gallery space, did you experience pleasure doing it? And if so, how can you go back to giving the white wall more territory in the gallery when you have ‘danced with the devil’—a reference to a line that Joaquin Phoenix delivers to Nicholas Cage in the Joel Schumacher film 8mm (1999): “If you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change. The devil changes you.”

MS: In an artist interview I enjoyed recently the interviewer was talking about meeting an ex-girlfriend whom he had once loved but when they had met 20 years later they hardly recognised each other. He surmised that deeply intimate things change one’s character forever. This was also said in the context of discussing how it is possible to draw or paint something so often that it can lose its meaning and become just a shape to be used or arranged.

You are asking (I assume) if I can make an exhibition in the future which would be like one of my previous exhibitions, and the answer is, no, I cannot. And I am wondering (as I write this) whether I would want to…?

Everything we do probably changes us. I have worked very hard for a couple of years on this show and through reading, thinking and reflecting it has become significant for me and has, no doubt, changed the way I will approach being an artist. But I would have to say the same of previous bodies of work.

I am very pleased by your suggestion that there is a sense of the studio about my show. This was certainly something I wanted to achieve. For a while now it has bothered me the way an exhibition can so alter an artwork that some of the life is taken out of work when it goes on show; paintings that once excited can deflate in a different context. This is not to say that I wish to exhibit my studio (I did that kind of a few years ago at Wexford Arts Centre). It’s more that I want to achieve the feeling of play that occurs in the studio in the exhibition.

 
Mary Heilmann, ‘Looking at Pictures’, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2016

Mary Heilmann, ‘Looking at Pictures’, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2016

 

I wonder was it the ‘playing’ that you responded to in the Mary Heilmann show? I think that kind of testing and questioning is in her work and so I wonder how much of this is about the execution of the work and how much is about the staging of the exhibition? It’s worth saying that there was a lot of white wall in that show. I think the studio (play, risk, experimentation and excess) is in that work; those paintings are about that stuff and that’s how the studio is in that show as it were.

I don’t know Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing on Carnival but I found it coincidental to read that Bakhtin’s “… carnivalesque is tied to the body and the public exhibition of its private functions.” ( This is from Theodore F. Sheckels Maryland Politics and Political Communication 1950-2005 which I have NOT read). I admit to using this out of context but, isn’t there something in this description of the carnivalesque—the public exhibition of its more private functions—that is similar to the relationship between the studio (private) and the exhibition (public)?

I don’t know what my next exhibition will look like until I have made the work, but I would acknowledge that the experience of this show will be assimilated. I take hope in what I was saying about Mary Heilmann’s work containing all that stuff from the studio, especially if it doesn’t get polished out; and that what we are talking about is not white walls or coloured patterns. It is about intent and priorities.

 
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JM: It was the ‘playing’ that I responded to in the Mary Heilmann show. It happened to another guy when I was there too: he was just standing there with the work and every now and then he would nod and smile and laugh to himself. I assume he was experiencing the same thing I was, the brain getting won over by the heart.

Heilmann’s paintings are so simple that you would never think them up, because we think we are so clever in our own heads but most of the time we are really dumb in our own heads. So I admire artists who can transcend their own intent and priorities and make something that has heart.

Your Forgery painting has an equal measure of head and heart, not to mention the title is powerfully tautological. Why would you copy such an ugly and awkward painting by poplar standards of beauty and skill (for the art audience I suppose). And isn’t all painting made yesterday, today and tomorrow a forgery—everything been done and all that. Forgery was also the odd one out in what you were doing at the time; it signalled a paradigm shift which I always get excited about in an artist’s work and which I think has manifested absolutely in ‘The Living and the Dead’.

 
‘Making Familiar’ (2012), Mark Swords and Paul Doran in conversation; Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin.

‘Making Familiar’ (2012), Mark Swords and Paul Doran in conversation; Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin.

 

But Forgery is contained execution of all that stuff we have been talking about here; ‘The Living and the Dead’ is a mushroom cloud. And I wonder what’s the difference, between what you describe as the execution and the staging of painting? You are sacrificing a lot of good execution to the whole in the staging at TBG&S. There’s vulnerability being exhibited there too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting artists should be continually destructive—Mary Heilmann achieves absolute optimism in a practice that keeps on testing the vulnerability and risk intrinsic to simple forms. Personally I want to experience the energy of the studio and the essence of the artist and the artist’s life in the work displayed in the gallery.

 
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Since we have been having these conversations you have had a baby whilst also making art. But you have not just been ticking away, your intent and priorities have come to the surface of your new work, especially this new focus on painting at the expense of your previous sculptural tidbits. This thankfully proves me completely wrong that good and risky and playful art can be even made, and especially made if tethered to a life full of bigger and more important responsibilities than just art. That’s optimism, it’s even overly romantic, something that I know you are suspicious of with regards to the painter.

So your next show, if it is to live up to the head and heart of ‘The Living and Dead’ will either tease out or collapse what you have done here. You are in deep waters now. No pressure.

MS: In relation to the ‘execution and staging of paintings’: I only meant the making and finishing of individual works v.s. the staging—how those works come together in an exhibition. They can be (usually are) very different things. You have said that some of my paintings in ‘The living and the dead’ may not have made-the-cut in one of my previous exhibitions, and maybe you’re right, but I never really thought of them that way. As well as being individual works I was always conscious of what they were adding to the overall collection of pieces—a different noise, scale or imagery for example.

 
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I took out Forgery today and spent some time looking at it just because your bringing it up got me wondering about its significance to what I am doing now, five years later. I still find it exciting (I was a bit surprised) and am still confused by its formal arrangement of shapes and dirty colours. I also feel that it comes very close to failing as it flirts with notions of badness/wrongness? Maybe most of all I think it has a vibrancy about it, as if it might start moving. It feels like a paused frame from an admittedly unlikely cartoon. I have a habit of describing it (and other works I have made) as “nasty”, which is a little disingenuous because that’s just a shorthand description for something I feel is beautiful despite its initial appearance. Lots of elements come together in Forgery: form, scale, intent, title and others to produce something richer, more challenging and more open for a viewer to experience.

You mentioned our conversation including Stewart Lee and his interest in pueblo clowns and the anarchism of carnival, but he is also interested in questioning his own work while performing it; playing with the form as it were. He talks about returning to stand up after a four-year break and how a contingent of his audience were giving him the benefit of the doubt because he had written a critically acclaimed musical in the interim period. It was, for him a case of well, he can’t be an idiot so he must be choosing to do his standup in this weird and monotonous way.

 
CHRIS MARTIN’S TAZ (2007-2015) portrays virtuoso Jazz musician Myles Davis amid palm trees and glitter and paint. The painting was on show in 2015 in the Chris Martin solo exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin.

CHRIS MARTIN’S TAZ (2007-2015) portrays virtuoso Jazz musician Myles Davis amid palm trees and glitter and paint. The painting was on show in 2015 in the Chris Martin solo exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin.

 

I’ve also heard Lee speak apologetically about jazz musicians on a number of occasions to demonstrate a similar point. I think he says that in a jazz set there may be moments of clear melody or a demonstration of the musicians’ skill which, as much as anything else, serves to say to the audience: ‘It’s ok, we CAN play, we know how to do this but we are choosing to do it another way on purpose.’ I wouldn’t say this is what I am doing in my work explicitly but I do like these ideas and they have played a role in my decision-making. Strangely, Lee usually apologises for the Jazz analogy and for seeming pretentious (I don’t think he really means it). I don’t find it pretentious at all which might make me pretentious, but in a way I’m ok with that.

 
Mark Swords, ‘The Living and The Dead’, Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin; 15 April – 17 June 2017: photo: Peter Rowan

Mark Swords, ‘The Living and The Dead’, Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin; 15 April – 17 June 2017: photo: Peter Rowan

 

Thank you to Mark Swords.

[James Merrigan]

1986 by James Merrigan

Frank Horvat, Le Sphinx, Paris, 1956

Frank Horvat, Le Sphinx, Paris, 1956

 

Meanwhile in 1986 an art critic is sharing his opinion of another art critic with another art critic…


 

“…..The other thing I think is important about Rene Ricard is that he represents a kind of sordidness that it’s important for the art world to believe that it is still capable of. The art world is supposed to be alienated, to be on the periphery—and it’s not. In fact, it’s very much integrated into the mainstream of culture. It’s not that most people like art; rather, it’s that the art world has found a secure place in ordinary life—which goes against all the avant-garde’s claims to being adventurous and in opposition. At a time when artists bring in architects to design their lofts, a flaky character like Ricard is very important. He makes it more believable that art is odd and weird and challenging.” (Carter Ratcliff in Janet Malcolm’s A GIRL OF THE ZEITGEIST—II, The New Yorker, 1986)

 

 

This is 2017; just saying.

Now… in all the years writing art criticism I have never once used the word ‘seedy’: believe me I’ve checked. From childhood to adulthood I remember coming across seedy situations without the vocabulary or experience to name them; situations when you cross the threshold of quotidian cleanliness to dirty diabolical, innocence to experience.

For instance.

In the village I grew up in there was this back-alley video store that I hung out at, day in, day out. In hindsight the video store was super seedy on the spectrum of childhood innocence. You could spend hours there reading the film synopses on greasy-backed VHS video cassettes with their tacky images and tackier textures; those sheepish customers that you never heard asking for the under-the-counter-porn but were edging in the aisles building up the seeds and courage to ask: desire beats denial every time. Then there was the video man who was a god among men because he had delivered a resource and ‘release’ to the villagers that wasn’t drink or GAA-related.

My research into the question as to why seedy hasn’t ever entered my writing until now has brought me dangerously close to queer theory and thus Judith Butler et al. But I decided I wouldn’t get any pleasure splitting the phallus to cockfight academic theories of male heterosexual and homosexual ‘seedy’ against new-age feminist ‘safe’ even if I signposted them HORN DOG SEX SHOP and FRESH FOREST VALLEY OF ANN SUMMERS. Instead I am going to fall into the undergrowth and find my way through the thorns and muck and hopefully get some scratches on my kneecaps and war paint on my face.

The word ‘seedy’ came into my sights recently when I was trying to organise a location for the forthcoming book launch of Madder Lake. One of the artists involved suggested a nightclub or sex club, in keeping with the tone of the DEEP-SEATED series of public and private conversations that took place in 2016 at Limerick’s Ormston House, Cork’s Crawford Art College, and Dublin’s Temple Bar Gallery & Studios. (Long story short psychoanalysis was the base theory of the conversations which led us into all matter of things sexually and critically abject). Anyway, the art scene seemed a world apart from the undergrowth and muck we thrashed through in the conversations.[1]

There was something else too.

I recently read an article in The New Yorker—circa Down and Out in Beverly Hills(1986)—that primarily follows the trail of artist and writer, Rene Ricard. Ricard was a mover and shaker in the New York art scene after emerging from the Warhol Factory fabulously scathed. He was also a maker—through his writing as well as cavorting— of such bluechip artists as the One whom everyone loves to hate, Julian Schnabel, and the One whom everyone seems to love, Basquiat. Beside all that, Ricard was blessed with a Wildean wit and equipped with Cupid’s bow to deliver a line that kissed the mind and bit the lip. The author of The New Yorker piece gives us an image of the 1980s New York scene along with Ricard:


 

“On this night, the Palladium has been turned over to a party for Keith Haring, and it is filled with beautifully and/or weirdly dressed people from the art world and its periphery. I come upon Ricard in a room that is apart from the discothèque proper, called the Mike Todd Room, which has a large bar, small marble-topped tables, and wire-back chairs, and is where the celebrities of the art world like to congregate. Ricard, resplendent in a white sharkskin suit, is sitting at one of the tables, in a state of high, almost incandescent excitement.”

 

 

When you go a little deeper into the world of Ricard his exploits have a dirty romanticism to them when contrasted with the wholesomeness of, for lack of a better known quantity, our art scene. Saying that sounds like I’m placing some value on seediness for its own sake, and that the art scene is a big Ivory boner always auto-polishing itself to appear publicly toothy but privately decayed… Maybe…

…..I’ll get back to you on that if and when the undergrowth thins out and the war paint is less messy…

The only time the art world is branded seedy is when, in the global news media, there is a corrupt gallery director or art thief involved in some shady dealings. “That, sadly, is a market at work, and suppressing it would only bestow the seedy glamour of the underground.” (anonymous) In more general terms, seedy in the online world is situated on the event horizon of the deep web: seedy is dirty rather than dangerous. In the real world—if I can call it that now—seedy is decorated in sex tapes and pornstars… continuing… an Xmas tinsel boa around the neck of a hooker giving head to a homeless guy on a toilet that won’t flush. Or is that just #gross.

Taking into account that the meaning of words change over time, especially at a time of #meanings, ‘seedy’, even when #seedy is used on Instagram as the personification of being #dirty/#sexy, the word still retains the essence of those handed-down meanings; from originally defining a flower that has lost its vibrancy after shedding its seeds, to being the adjective that loiters around sex shops and back entrances to nightclubs. The city has a lot to answer for.

Personally I’ve never personified the word seedy in casual speech; the word has always been embedded in a setting rather than a person, like the word ‘uncanny’, i.e., David Lynch’s mise en scène. Sure, a guy wearing a stiff rain mack and greasy hair can activate seediness but the blinking pink LEDs from the sex shop also need to be in the frame. TV thought me everything.

Emerging from the undergrowth with kneecaps and war paint in tact I am still not certain why I have decided to side with seediness here. Perhaps it stems from it not fitting in; that it is the one non-site that art rejects. Strange thing is, I would call a lot of Bruce Nauman’s art seedy, but Paul McCarthy’s less so. And Bruce and Paul (sounds better Paul and Bruce) get me thinking about how art students sometimes embrace seediness but they never graduate into the art scene where expression is a little less raw and derelict because of the big Ivory boner polisher.

In my case it could be a case of being around too many white walls and artist statements that begin with the public announcement “My practice….” The Deep-Seated discussions opened up a discourse that was less concerned with discipline and impressing on the public a notion about art being public and wanting to be public. In a sense it was about reigning it all in; not shedding the seeds so the vibrancy and potency remain. There’s something intimate and close quartered about seediness that can’t go beyond the width of a video store in some back-alley in some backwater village.

I think what Glenn Frey of The Eagles said about Hotel California says a lot about continuums of experience and exposure: “It was a journey from innocence into experience.” It’s also like what pornstar Puma Swede says in her memoir My Life as a Pornstar: “Then, while the rest of the [porn] staff was eating dinner, we went over to US Video, a notoriously seedy porn shop…”.

[James Merrigan]

Frank & Betsy by James Merrigan

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{I’m standing watching Jonathan Mayhew’s video work in Wexford Arts Centre and a man walks out of the adjoining cafe and drags a screeching chair across the gallery floor to plonk right down beside me—footsy-close—crosses his legs before shouting into his phone something about his daughter’s dress being the wrong size and having it returned.}*

{I’m sitting in a dark filmset about to ask a painter ‘What is his first memory?’ He is the sixth painter I have put this same question to over the course of two days. I’m not sure what but I know we are doing something important, here. NOW is something you feel rather than KNOW.}

{I’m pissing into a public toilet filled with ice cubes. Social anxiety heats the pure gold.}

 
 
 

In the last week I have interviewed six Irish painters on film, attended an art-scene social, reviewed an exhibition and written this. What I’ve learnt from all this is: being social is hard work and we tailor ourselves for other people, even tailor our identities through the objects we make and promote as artists. No one is socially consistent, whether in life, social media or art.

How we act and portray ourselves around others and online has partly to do with how our big brothers treated us or the type of imaginary friends we had as kids. We are our deepest and oldest insecurities. As artists we laugh along with the social banalities with our heads in the crooks of our arms thinking of that Frankenstein’s monster in the studio and why it won’t come together.

 
 
 

{As the ice melts I remember a painter’s response to my question about the monogamous nature of painting, “Painting doesn’t tolerate mistresses!”}

 
 
 

Scary…..even Mary Shelley’s monster wanted a bride. As artists—now, I’m just putting this out there—we’re never really alive, always waiting for that stormy night and that green bolt of lightning to come crackling into the laboratory.

In a real sense the Internet has become the artist’s Dr. Frankenstein. Fabricating oneself, one’s art, through the lens of social media is the defining condition of what it means to be an artist today. And even though we have never had more access to the lives of artists, their studios, their homes, their interests, their loves, their social lives, their affiliations, their cats, dogs, these online editions of ourselves are bloodless and grey, sewn together with detached imagery and ironic sentiment that are never complete and cannot possibly replace flesh and blood. But we let them, these cold and fluid avatars. Assumption is the clown of humanity.

 
 
 

{I’m looking across at a flesh and blood painter who is under the gaze of 10 lenses, machine and human. She speaks like humans do. Nothing’s drafted; everything is second-guessed. It’s wonderful. Flesh and blood and sweat.]

 
 
 

Some Minotaur once said that ‘death mythologises’. I’ve come to learn that enigma is delivered in silence, and a mask if you casual a cape. But first-hand experience tells me that’s not really how I define and value enigma in someone else.

The people I am drawn to are enigmatic because they question things out loud. These rough diamonds tell me what they think of me in person and they are open to the vice versa. It’s their own version of the truth but at least they are committed to the lie. And I’m not waving the criticism flag here; it’s more a tuned-in-self-acknowledged-vulnerability that I’m talking about. There’s probably something socially wrong with them, this syndrome or that disorder, but at least they’re consistent and I know where I stand; that is, when I’m not being shell-shocked by their candour.

Myself: some days I want to be Frank, other days Betsy, but I’m never James Merrigan online—the guy pissing in the toilet right now willing the gold stream to never stop and the ice to never melt. I feel inconsistent most of the time online. I blame my big brother whose music taste defined inclusiveness but not in an ethical way. The 1980s was his excuse.

So seven days ago I found myself on a filmset, up close and personal with six Irish painters questioning them on the nature and nurture of painting. Aside from the practicalities of making a documentary I wanted to dig behind the paint we see and the painter we don’t. The nature and nurture of it all. Wishing for a green lighting bolt I wanted to discover if the painter was alive, flesh and blood:

“It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”

Something happens however when we are being photographed or filmed, when the lens is put onto us. We call it self-consciousness but it’s not that at all. We are anything but self-conscious under the lens. It’s more a body thing, an energy thing. We bounce. We curl. We tick. We speed. We gape. We imagine the image being recorded reveals something about us. We become all at once the child looking through the microscope for the first time and the amoeba being watched by the child. An inverse staring match takes place: ‘How do I look?’

 
 
 

{After pissing I realised I hadn’t looked in the mirror.}

 
 
 

The camera lies like everything else, though. It’s all surface stuff. We can’t capture ourselves so what hope is there for a lens. Five years down the line we might gain some insight into how some trauma or little earthquake affected us but other than those rare moments of sobriety that uncannily burst into the present from the past and shake us with dusty Mummy arms, we get through the present by merely getting by. We are always eating our own dust.

My hope in these filmed interviews with painters is to unwrap the Mummy, mine own and theirs. It was put to me on the filmset that this type of questioning, self-analysis, psychology, is not helpful. I asked “am I being destructive?”. It wasn’t elaborated further as to whom was being destroyed, them or me.

Henry Miller talks about these cadenzas when writing that, no matter how fast he could type he was chasing a thought that was faster than him. What a drug, to tap into this source, in the gut, or soul, or whatever and allow the Alien to burst through the armature and gnaw the mask off; or at the very least start bashing the typewriter with its maw. On film, in person, consensually toe-to-toe (unlike screeching-chair-man at Wexford Arts Centre), I feel I caught the tail of a cadenza or two and I assume (being a fool) the interviewees did too.

So here I am on a filmset, at a social, in the jacks, asking, listening, drinking, writing, questioning what is to be social all the while searching for what it is to really know someone, flesh and blood, and their art, flesh and blood.

 
 

———————–

*My review of Jonathan Mayhew’s solo at Wexford Arts Centre can be read in the forthcoming March/April issue of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet.

Junction by James Merrigan

David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace.

 
 

The sun was a headlight.

 

I was driving the other morning to work. I decided the night before that I would listen to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech en route to the art school where I tutor one day a week, in order to judge whether it was relevant to the lesson I was delivering and appropriate for the students I was tutoring. After showing it I’m still not certain about either.

On the YouTube video you are given just a still image of Wallace while you listen to his recorded voice. He stands at a podium set against a milky-tea backdrop. He wears long hair, short-sleeves, glasses and a beard. His arms are spread, sermon-like. But beneath this Jesus Christ posture his brow seems to buckle a little under the weight of some inner burden that would be found out three years later when Wallace would take his own life at age 46.

While listening to his voice in the car I begin to imagine the audience of graduates at the American College where this speech took place in 2005. They are gazing up with theoretical appreciation at the wiser and older Wallace while clapping and laughing out of beat with his message. “Wise old fish” among younger fish is something Wallace professes he is not to the student cohort on that day, with that type of self-criticism that bespeaks a thinker and writer who was relentlessly self-critical underneath his lexical command of the world. A tortured narcissist, terribly alone.

Rather than badly retell what Wallace posited on that “dry and lovely morning” at Kenyon College Ohio, I will get to the heart or at least a chamber of his speech’s sentiment: each and everyone of us is a hardwired narcissist, stuck most of the time in what Wallace refers to as our “default-setting” of self-centredness. We battle this self-centredness every time we are met by that ubiquitous obstacle and annoyance, other people, what Sartre too famously called “Hell”. To paraphrase Wallace: ‘I am the centre of the Universe and the world orbits me. I am gravity.’

But we have a choice in all of this according to Wallace. We can choose how to think, how to construct meaning from quotidian experience. We can choose to be aware of ourselves and other people. (Sometimes I want to crack my skull open, so maybe, just maybe, I could get a peek at the multitude blind spots – I think Wallace found a way to do so that granted him both beautiful insight and ugly self-injury.)

Narcissism isn’t what we are made to think it is in popular culture. The narcissist is not what Gore Vidal playfully diagnosed as being “better looking” than you or me. It’s more deep-seated than mere surface. Let’s not forget Narcissus was vengefully led to the pool where he found himself locked into his own reflection. Caravaggio’s painted image of Narcissus is not a glorious metaphor for self-fulfilment. The self is an obsession that obsesses us all, that consumes us when allowed. And when you look too hard at something you begin to see the cracks; or if none visible you start to invent them.

Wallace talks about the traits of narcissism in his speech but he doesn’t use the word narcissism, even though he suffered the self more than most. What Wallace does talk about is worship, and how the worship of gods or idols or whomever is a way of saving ourselves from ourselves. Whereas money-worship, image-worship, intellect-worship is a still pool in waiting.

In a sense we are always circling the pool, crestfallen, so looking up into the infinite heavens is all we can do to keep ourselves from falling into that deep sinkhole of self. That reflection shimmering in the pool beneath us at the perfect angle can be upset by the slightest perspective shift. So we don’t naturally shift perspectives because our psyches are riddled with protective blind spots. Fresh trauma is the only cure for psychic propulsion.

It’s why Caravaggio’s 400 year-old Narcissus in paint is so compelling; his gaze is literally set in paint forever without hope of escape because of the painting’s cultural value and historical significance. In essence we can’t let him escape his self because we adore him so much.

I turn the radio off and the sun becomes a sun again. I am on this long bridge and rush-hour traffic is a mercury stream that catches the colours of the rising sun. At the end of the bridge is a junction where cars are packed just as tight as the cars on the bridge. But no one on the bridge is letting the little fish out; they are trapped and wanting, pleadingly looking upstream.

After just listening to Wallace the meaning of irony was never as clear as it was on that day, and it was a good day. Here I am at this junction, a crossroads if you will, and choices are being made and given every second that a car on the bridge chooses not to let one of the little fish out at the little junction. Those little fish are pleading with their eyes, everything agape. But the drivers on the bridge don’t make eye contact lest they’d have to submit to self-compromise or guilt. The drivers on the side road are the bystanders, while those on the bridge Superman punch their way across the bridge with the will and purpose that comes with saving the world, their worlds: Clark Kents caught in the revolving door.

The thing is, and it’s obvious to you and me and even them but here it goes anyway: most of the drivers on this bridge will find themselves on the return journey as the little fish on that same little road looking upstream at the bullying bridge traffic. And they will be making the same pleading faces, the roles reversed, the perspectives forcefully shifted. 

One day a week I face this junction. I am always anxious about what it represents, how it ticks my cynicism about the world. It’s a small junction among hundreds of thousands of junctions around the country, but this one in particular feels like a testing ground.

It’s a game of percentages in the end. The majority of days when en route back home and stuck at the head of the traffic, willing the cars to let me out, I count them like steel sheep… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…10…15… before someone stutters and stammers with their lights and hands to go, go! Somedays the driver behind me gets out too.

When you let someone out it’s like you have shot them. It’s funny. Then they compose themselves, wave and put their foot down to get on with their default-setting. But for a split second they are gracious, most of the time.

I return to Wallace’s commencement speech, wondering if it’s a little deep and dangerous for my students. I then return into the fold of one of his many analogies in the speech, in which he describes a workaday day, what he calls the “day in, day out” of adulthood.

His protagonist is a busy and tired worker with a Liberal Arts Degree like his audience in Ohio, who remembers at work that there’s no food at home. So after a long day’s work this worker has to travel through rush-hour traffic, rush-hour shopping, rush-hour ennui, annoyance, inconsideration with a bockety trolley for his troubles.

The moral of the story – even though Wallace says there is none – is that perhaps all those people in rush-hour traffic, rush-hour shopping, experiencing rush-hour ennui, annoyance, inconsideration with bockety trollies are having as bad or a much worse day than you are. That may be your life is, relative to theirs, fucking fabulous. 

Returning to the junction, every work morning I let out at least one car. Perhaps if the percentages weren’t so stark I wouldn’t. Who knows. So this day of days I let this driver out and once again I have shot them. Hands up. Agape. Peddle. Metal. Default-setting.

But also on this day of days, with Wallace’s commencement speech ringing in my ears, the car behind me blows the horn. Let’s be clear, I have only gestured one little fish to go at this point. Like being shot in the back of the head I lose brain and motor function and make dumb gestures with my hand, half the middle finger, half a thumbs up, half a wave – hand gibberish. The horn blows again, again, again. 

BARK!! BARK!! BARK!! BOLLOX!!!

A BIG BMW (which made it somehow worse). MAN. FAT. BALD. JOWLED. A scalped bulldog spitting and pawing climbs into my rearview mirror. My heart pumps. My pits fill with fear. I stop the car. I let a second car through; the little fish’s face isn’t shot this time because they see what’s going on, a superhero face-off. I want to get out of the car. And that’s there, underneath…violence. I imagine American History X. But what I most want is for him to hear David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech and his “default settings” ringing in my ears.

3, 4, 5… 10 cars escape the pen until I release the brake and the red behind me and inside me subsides.

I move on and think, maybe I’m the asshole. Perhaps that bollox was rushing to the sick, the dying, the dead. That giving away his daughter, his son, was his excuse.

Love was his excuse.

You choose.

 

Painting's Primacy by James Merrigan

Me, 2005. photo: Damien Flood.

Me, 2005. photo: Damien Flood.

 
 

Last month I stopped an art project in its tracks.

 

Calling it an ‘art project’ now sounds a little… lacking, as it was 7 years in the making.

The project in question emerged out of an uncontrollable urge to write art criticism while on a year-long art residency in Dublin, and in the run-up to an important group exhibition I was selected for at Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy called The Futures.

It probably was a case of what Mel Bochner diagnosed in friend and artist Donald Judd, that Judd “wrote [art criticism] in order to get out of his studio and into the trenches”.

I always knew it was tricky, messy and a little perverse writing criticism set within the local art scene while existing as an artist among artist-peers, but it was an urge that I couldn’t dispel or deny.

So I did it.

For 7 years.

The urge to stop, however, was just as great.

I refer to billionjournal.com as a ‘project’ because that’s what it started out as, a project among other art projects I was working on at the time. It was supplementary; a vitamin at first, then a drug. I didn’t foresee the addiction lasting 7 years, however, and I certainly didn’t see it replacing making art when, two years into +billion- I would stop making and thinking about making art… until now, 5 years on.

(Contrary to what other artists have shared with me personally about +billion– becoming my art practice, I have always felt that it never managed to attain that status, even though I probably sought art through criticism.)

Last month, immediately after writing my farewell post on +billion-, I started to think about the possibility of being a painter again. It wasn’t as out-of-the-blue as it sounds. I have been conducting filmed interviews with Irish painters over the course of the last two years with the filmmakers Saskia Vermeulen and Gareth Nolan. This research and content will go towards a future documentary/essay film/exploded biography on the deep-seated natures of painting.

From those filmed conversations I have been eager to distill why painters choose to paint, continue to paint, and sustain being painters when I found it so difficult to do so.

See. I started out as a painter like most artists. And it wasn’t a casual fling – I was obsessed. But like most artists I got side-tracked into other things. The fact was, back then I only knew what it was to be a painter yesterday, and knew nothing about what it was to be a painter today.

As a teenager painting became a kind of religion for me at the very moment I lost my Religion to tragic circumstance. Raphael, Rembrandt and Goya were my Holy Trinity during those days of disassociation. Ironically, these painters painted the religion that I had wilfully disavowed. It got me thinking that perhaps we never really give up our obsessions and addictions, we just transform them into something else.

My appreciation of painting and the painter’s life in my formative years was always once removed from reality. My art books were a provincial lens, in which bad reproductions and colourful biographical accounts were disconnected from the real contexts that shaped the painters’ lives and their paintings. Books were my only compass to become, in essence, like them.

The painter’s life – as told by the historian – became inextricable from the images they painted. The ebb and flow of the painter’s life, if you looked close enough, and read deep enough, could be uncovered in the actual paint.

But it wasn’t the images of sinners and saints I was drawn to, or comforted by, or whatever it was, it was the painter’s life told ever so convincingly by historians in books that suggested a painter’s life was a good life to live, a good life to take on.

(I remember talking to an art history professor in Trinity College Dublin about the prospect of undertaking a PhD in some aspect of painting history, Italian or Spanish, anywhere would do. He convinced me that theorising and fictionalising painting history will never measure up to doing the real thing.)

The painter in these fictionalised histories was portrayed as an ambitious outsider trying to discover the inside track to status and legacy. In hindsight, painting was a perfect route to immortality: we remember the painters but not the portrayed.

There was also a sense of rivalry among painters in the stories I held on to. At the beginnings of the pulped celebrity artist, most painters had access to Vasari’s Lives. Annabale Carracci wrote in the marginella of his copy that Vasari was a “fuck face” for some slight. That’s the stuff I related to, remembered, not the glossy sermons to the artist-genius on high.

You can imagine today what rivalry would be waged among painters if there was a chance to have their work displayed in a permanent architecture of worship for an audience of worshippers attuned to the representational symbolism of their art and their message.

On the face of it, however, there wasn’t really much separating what a painter painted and how a painter painted it in those days; after all, the painted stories were variations of the same theme, the same characters within the same religious or secular contexts, and generally, with the same painting techniques, give or take a flair for composition or with the paint brush. But it was those difficult to describe, painted idiosyncrasies, nuances if you will, that separated the forgotten from the remembered, those with a legacy and those without, those that made you want to paint and those that didn’t.

I also imagined as a teenager that painters who became directors of their own fate and the religious faith that they portrayed in paint had a god-given or Natural talent that went beyond the sustained practice of their craft. Parents – biased and blind towards anything their child achieves in life – refer to this little extra something as a ‘gift’. Whatever it is, the remembered few painters in the history books all seemed to possess it according to the authors of these histories, as if not possessing it meant you couldn’t possibly conquer history or time. Baudelaire called it ‘temperament’ – in his love for Delacroix.

But beyond outdated notions of immortality and legacy, I have come to learn through looking rather than doing that being a painter of worth is built on the responsibility and burden of going far beyond mere image-making to somehow tap into the pleasures and anxieties of humanity that are lost in other forms of image-making, but possible in painting. I believe there is something to painting and being a painter that cannot be imitated, or perhaps even shared.

Let’s see…