Sometimes, and this is rare, I stumble across an image that begs to be reproduced in a way that arrived fully formed in my mind. Me being me, there was always going to be an element of randomness. I knew that I wanted some drips in the background, but you just can’t control those luscious drips, and I wouldn’t want to either. This took only a few hours to make, it just leaped out of my subconscious. So in many senses, this one made itself. The human brain is just another stochastic system – at the mercy of the environment, manacled to its memorial imprints – and attributing too much (and some would argue any) credit to volition and predetermined wisdom or insight is post-rational hubris. The painting is a product of its environment. Since the source material is a very old photo, there is a irresistible juxtaposition involved too.
This piece could be considered a pendant to another of my works “The Will of the People”. They both features ladies from old horror/sci-fi films and explore themes of enslavement, brain-washing, paranoia and conformity. Both are very much a product of, and a comment upon the confusing, bleak times we find ourselves in.
Many of my paintings have a implicit theme or meaning, some more obvious than others. I don’t think good art has to mean anything, but as I tend to have many things to say, painting is one way to get these thoughts, opinions and ideas out there, even if only obliquely. If a painting like this elicits more than aesthetic judgement, if it makes people feel more, positively or negatively, then I consider that a win.
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.
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.
This nice man came to a life drawing session and dressed as a boxer. I don’t know how many pensioners continue to box, so in that sense, the concept is a little incongruous. I suppose this old fighter has adorned his kit for one last time, perhaps to relive former glories and feel some of the vitality of youth. Some of the poses were meant to seem triumphant, but it’s hard too capture anything other than melancholy, which suits me fine. This melancholic air was further emphasised by the fact that (as we discovered only at the end of the session) the model had a toothache!
I find myself increasingly concerned for the plight of the younger generations. The older generations, who supposedly should be benefactors, mentors, and protectors of their kids’ and grandkids’ futures are repeatedly selling out their futures in favour of short term self interest, base prejudice and ego. While they frown on the kids as video games supposedly rot their brains, those same kids rebuild the foundations of the future underneath the old guard, to the extent that (as Zuckerberg’s recent appearance in front of congress, and the world, demonstrates) they cannot, even vaguely, comprehend what is happening, so their natural instinct is to brutalise, obstruct, litigate, smear and propaganda-ise it out of existence. Recent history has shown that this will not work yet, in the meantime, the younger generations bear the financial and social brunt of their elder’s continued, and increasingly feverish and seedy hubris and ignorance.
This is what I saw sitting at the dining table in a holiday cottage in Devon on a recent trip. It suggests that I can see through walls, which I cannot, but my human brain is clever enough to infer what might be there.
Here’s a painting I made that I do not like. It is, of course, of me, but I only ever meant to use myself as a model. I tried to make it not look like me, but I failed repeatedly and gave up. Perhaps there’s something to be read into that. Pretty much as soon as the figure took shape on the canvas I realised I hated it. I soldiered on with anyway, in the hopes that I could coerce something more interesting, which has worked in the past, but ultimately failed at that too. In the end, I had some paint to use up which I just started chucking on in an attempt to debase the painting, a bit like Johnny Greenwood di with the crunchy guitar bits at the beginning of the chorus of Radiohead’s Creep. They hate that song and similarly I hate this picture. The difference is, this picture is unlikely to make me rich, or result in it’s name being screamed repeatedly from amongst festival crowds. I place it here in the spirit of not trying too hard to make sure everything is perfect and also in the spirit of celebrating failure. I didn’t even bother to take a decent photo of it. I am already my own worst critic, but feel free also to join be in berating this awful painting (presented as an object, not a work of art).