I’m struggling to pin down when this was produced. It was painted using as its reference a Polaroid picture (which I still have) circa 1998/9. I barely remember making this. By the look of it, there was originally a highly textured abstract piece on the board, which presumably I didn’t like. Or perhaps I just ran out of surfaces to deface and decided to arbitrarily recycle. You’ll have to build a time machine and go ask younger me. I find the haphazard blobs of texture and bits of colour from the original work poking through a little disturbing, which of course also means I find them very satisfying. This isn’t a particularly flattering likeness (the Polaroid doesn’t exactly make me look like Brad Pitt either) but I think this choice of image and depiction says something of the slightly distorted and unflattering view I have of my physical appearance. I’m certain this distortion was less apparent in my early 20s, but years of psychological cruelty through my school year about my looks (and intelligence) have left me with a scar tissue over my self-appraising mind’s eye, something that is also very common among those with ADHD. I’m capable of appreciating that I’m a reasonably good looking guy (at least by the standards set by modern society) yet I cannot feel it. The fact that I was likely a perfectly decent-looking kid, yet still was considered a geeky mess (to my recollection), speaks more to how a carried myself – awkward, inward, grumpy, untouchable and odd – than my actual physical appearance. But then, perhaps my memory of events of those years is distorted, and it is only me who ever viewed myself in that way.
The theme here, if it’s not obvious, is the relationship between nature, randomness, mechanism and determinism. The title is not whimsical. The 6 cell motif that dominates the half of the painting is a representation of a single state of a cellular automaton, one of infinite number possible, from Conway’s Game of Life. This particular one is of the class of automata called “spaceships”. In his case, its representation is rotated to be balanced on its corners. I did this because I wanted to illustrate symmetry, which although is neither necessary, nor necessarily common in cellular automata (I’ll leave the mathematicians to prove whether the previous statements has any mathematical meaning, let alone is in any way probable one way or the other) is a common in the nature we observe around us, and may be intrinsic to life itself as well as the very fabric of the universe. Further marks are placed to then subvert this similarity placing the automaton in its environment which, as you would observe looking around your own environment, would seem haphazard and incongruous to your own manifestation.
The background to this painting was the result of an effort to create a non-white, homogeneous base for an idea for a different painting. Applying the base coat in my garden I whimsical decided to put down some leaves and other debris picked from my garden among the splashes I was applying, attempting to maximise the disorder of the base coat. Having let it dry I found the finished result so satisfying I immediately discounted my original purpose for this canvas, which would have cover most of the surface, for something that would use this base and its myriad organic forms.
The geometric pattern than I had applied to the untouched canvas for its original purpose suggested the new theme. The juxtopositoning between this regular geometric motif made an interesting counterpoint to the organic mess of the underpainting. I’ve been fascinated for while by the regularity and Mandlebrotian self-similarity displayed everywhere in the world around us. Nature is fractal and non-linear, which counter intuitively breeds a complex and unpredictable type of regularity, that repeats not only from item to item, from scale to scale. It seeming defies entropy through a self-sustaining urge to homeostasis, itself a physical manifestation of regression to the mean. This is mechanical, mathematical, seemingly linear and somewhat predictable, but at any scale or resolution is chaotic, unpredictable and, to the human brain at least, scarcely fathomable. There is geometry here, even where it’s not visible. There is also regularity, via repetition and self-similarity, but also in incremental, barely visible state change via random mutation. This gives the illusion of determinism. A directed progression towards a glorious developmental peak, with homo sapiens perched atop, chin thrust forward with pride and superiority. Creationism via a divine, unfolding plan. But this is an entirely unnecessary and redundant interpretation that makes liberal use post-rationalisation and reeks of self-serving fatalism and self-proclaimed birthright.
Finally, for any system to continue to exist, however fleetingly, it must contain a semblance of a stable state to which it can return. This, of course, is also an illusion. All natural systems constantly mutate, but a system’s existence is predicated on the fact that most facets exist within a standard deviation or two of the mean state. Outliers exist, but are momentary and will always be succeeded by information points closer to the centre of the Gaussian hump. This statistical inevitability gives the illusion of the comforting stability and regularity that allows randomness manifest as something resembling determinism. But systems are inherently unstable, and randomness prevails. To what ends we can only speculate.
An so automaton wonders this world of apparent contradictions, occasionally meeting other automata of varying shape and size, at which point they may merge and mutate, or obliterate each other. New states are created and old one obliterated. And here we have crude illustration of nature. I seek not to capture its likeness, nor create a simile or metaphor, but to illustrate one of its many faces.
Here is a picture of my Manga Mannequin stood staring into the abyss.
He seems fearful, hesitant, afraid even. He also has no face to tell us this with. No voice and no story. These Manga Mannequins do suggest a story, or perhaps a character, or element of culture, or something like that. There is strength of pose. It’s hard to get any other type of pose. It’s almost impossible to coerce a pose that suggests deference, or fear or diminution. They’re made to model superheros. The powerful stances and limber contortions of Marvel and Andrew Loomis. There’s vulnerability here, which is satisfying.
Here’s another picture.
Here he’s looking a bit more confident. Looking over the edge, trying to decide what to do. You don’t need many cues to derive this sort of information. The mammalian brain is a remarkable machine, capable of extrapolation from very oblique abstractions. You kinda know what this dude is thinking. Your opinion of that (and it is opinion since, we presume, he’s actually thinking nothing at all) will likely differ from mine, but not greatly.
The fact that he’s visibly at the edge of a big drop (in reality, the edge of my desk. I think I was on a conference call at this point. It’s likely that I was paying attention to that more than taking the photo. This type of semi-conscious activity is precisely the sort of thing I need to keep me focused on conference call. Scrolling through Twitter or just daydreaming less so) suggest something of his predicament, or mind set. Were he on an uninterrupted surface, we’d maybe assume he was looking at some object on the floor, surprised or in alarm. Maybe a small dog is barking at him, or he’s noticed a clown in a nearby drain.
The next photo removes some ambiguity.
It’s on odd pose in the dog/clown scenario. He’s not stepping on or towards something, he’s stepping off. Although it’s hard to tell, we’d need to remove the context to know for sure. I’m not going to do that. I’d rather you focused on the what he’s going through at the precipice. That’s where the drama is, and that’s what creates tension and narrative.
Of course I’ve provided little narrative or characterisation, and few visual and textual hints. I needn’t even have done that much, but it’s nice to talk about it, don’t you think? What happens next? Does he jump? If so, why? Will he survive the jump? Will he plummet endlessly? Does he have a parachute? Is this really an abyss, or just a shallow hop? Maybe he’s going to jump from a bridge into water, not knowing how deep the water below is.
I have no further photos. We’ll never know the answer to these, and other questions you might have. You can provide these by creating the rest of the story in your head.
It won’t find it hard to believe that I find it difficult to focus when on conference calls. A random floating piece of dust catching a mote of sunlight is enough to draw me a away from the matter in hand. The ceaseless distraction that is the social web is like a black hole sucking focus to be forever lost among images of kittens and inane chatterings. In reality, I can be distracted by my own thoughts. You can lock me in a featureless, windowless room with load speakers blasting the call at me and I’d still daydream. It’s what I do, how I’m configured. It’s also fair to say that I can easily wonder during in-person meetings, but this is much less of a problem since a) people tend to notice quicker so I’m forced to make more effort, b) what’s going on in the room tends to occupy me – I like to try and read the room, understand the interpersonal dynamics, dissect what’s really happening and c) half the time, everyone else has their nose stuck in their laptop or phone anyway, in which case the etiquette is loosened due to shared defiance of the general order.
Nevertheless, on most occasions, if you’ve been invited to attend, and more so, if I have arranged a conference call, it’s customary to pay attention. To not do so is at best rude and unprofessional, and at worst results in potentially disastrous consequences due to misunderstandings and offense taken should there be someone important on the other end that you are ignoring. That moment when you catch your name being mentioned on the other end of a question, and you’ve been tuned out for 5 minutes, is never a comfortable one. I have strategies to dig myself out of such holes, but I’d rather not need to deploy them. I recognise the need to pay attention, I’m just not very good at it.
So over the years I’ve developed a technique for focusing when on conference calls, that I also use in face-to-face meetings that are especially important to pay attention in: I do something else. It sounds counter intuitive, since “something else” is precisely what gets me into trouble in the first place, but certain types of activity allow me to occupy my fidgeting mind and wondering fingers, while maintaining sufficient focus on the matter in hand. For example, sometimes I put myself on mute and run scales and exercises on my unamplified electric guitar. Fidget spinners really do help for shorter periods. Just pacing is also a short relief. But mainly I doodle. Not in a directed, specific way, I just pick up a pencil and let my hand and subconscious wonder. I have an A3 pad under my keyboard for this very purpose. Sometimes these doodles appear quasi-realistic and/or geometric, sometimes they are haphazard scribbles. Rarely do they resemble anything of this world. Somewhere from deep in my subconscious, odd creatures and bizarre, Escherian landscapes emerge. I don’t try and interpret these, they just are.
I decided to see what would emerge if I unleashed that same odd corner of my cognitive nether-regions upon canvas, which is what you see below. As it emerged over days, my environment and thoughts began to bestow some meaning and it became less “random”, but the marks that appeared continued to be driven by urge rather than conscious intent. The extent to which this is a manifestation of some facet of my subconscious or some Freudian complex I’ll leave to the those psychoanalytical witch-doctors who enjoy such speculation. I know not what it “means” outside a vague sense that there is some statement on evolution, ecosystems, the environment and Man’s influence on this, among the slops and dribbles that adorn the canvas.
I did not know at which point this painting would be finished since I had no sense of what shape the final piece would take. I stopped when I felt that further marks or textures on the canvas would be to the detriment of the painting to that point, and also because of the more practical justification that I had other stuff that I needed/wanted to be getting on with. It is partly for this reason that I named the piece “Finished” as an invitation for the observer to precis this assertion and decide whether it really is. But there is also a metaphor to be eked from that title, the sculpting of which I’ll leave to the Freudians.