July 09 - October 20 2012
At The LAB, the artist-cum-art critic James Merrigan, has placed his two personas/professions in the gallery simultaneously. As an artist Merrigan is a Dr. Jekyll of sorts, having a similar ambition to bring forth the subliminal ‘IT’ that lies just beneath the civilised collar of society. As an art critic he has been called polemical, but is most inspired by artists who lose themselves in the materials of their art making. The metaphor of Jekyll waking up to the damage ‘they’ inflicted on the public the night before is his best way of describing the aftermaths of both art making and art criticism.
THELASTWORDSHOW presents this fugue state of artist and art critic as text light-boxes, video, sculpture, sound. Merrigan’s art practice is left wide open to oohs and aarghs with his blatant use of art world generalities, clichés and reductive puns – along with a few uncanny moments that somehow snaked their way in when the critic was sound asleep (or awake?) – the artist doesn't remember.
James Merrigan is an artist and art critic. As an artist, he has exhibited at thisisnotashop, Temple Bar Gallery & Studios and The Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, Roscommon Arts Centre, Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Queen Street Gallery & Studios in Belfast, 126 Gallery in Galway and Monster Truck in Dublin.
As an art critic, Merrigan has written for Circa Magazine, Visual Artists Newsletter (VAN), a-n magazine, is a regular contributor to Aesthetica Magazine, and has written numerous artist catalogue essays. He is the founding editor of +BILLION- journal and co-founding editor of Fugitive Papers. Awards include the 2010/11 Red Stables’ Studios Irish Residential Award, the Dublin City Council Arts Office / VAI Visual Arts Writing Award (2011), and the Arts Council Project Award (2011). He is co-curator (with Robert Armstrong) of the painting group show Making Familiar at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, Dublin (August/September 2012).
A publication of his writings entitled Agents of Subjectivism: Writings for Art, will be published in October 2012.
Alan Phelan talks to James Merrigan, December 2012
AP: Your double-jobbing seems to causing friction in your practice. It would appear that writing is getting the better of this relationship, but yet you do enjoy getting lost in the act of making. Why fear the split personality, surely it is more fun to be Mr Hyde anyway?
JM: I started reviewing and first exhibiting almost simultaneously in 2008, they seemed to go hand-in-hand. But I have always kept my activities as an artist and writer separate. Perhaps it's a personal phobia but I believed that they needed to be separate. I found that when I was making art I could not put two words together. A friend of mine could tell when I was preparing work for an exhibition just by the manner of my emails, which became unreadable, unbeknownst to me. Perhaps that is where the Jekyll/Hyde analogy comes from for THELASTWORDSHOW – which leads me to your question: "surely it is more fun to be Mr Hyde?" It is a strange dialectic regarding the Jekyll/Hyde split-personality. I think both ways of ‘being’ have the potential to be 'fun'. Hyde explicitly so, whereas Jekyll represents the best of both worlds. I find it interesting how people who make offhand comments on Facebook and Twitter in the heat of the moment can, in a manner of speaking, split their virtual and 'real' personality.
Bottom-line, THELASTWORDSHOW was a chance to invite both activities/personalities into the same room. I felt it was a risk. Not ‘my reputation’ (whatever that means), but just something that I was uncomfortable with. It was a fresh start and an end all at once.
AP: Although you have a distinct aesthetic, your work has changed through several projects - the fragmented, packed and immersive installations have evolved into more discrete pieces with THELASTWORDSHOW. Maybe it’s a site spatial response or was it because you had more specific textual components that you wanted to emphasise?
JM: By inviting the writer into the art gallery in the first instance I felt immediately less subjective and open-ended. The works are intentional one-liners. Everything had to be so-so. Artists always complain about The Lab being a ‘difficult’ space. It's not. But I had the luxury of a four week install which allowed me the time to make most of the work on site, and more importantly, make decisions day-by-day. I was very conscious of making it a much neater installation of objects because it was inherently about artworld 'objecthood' rather than experiential theatricality. I told Sheena Barrett that I wasn't going to ask her could I build a room within the gallery to avoid the 'problematic' space.
AP: I have found it disconcerting that you say there is a more polemical reaction to your writing. Some people are indeed annoyed about your opinions but they are only yours, they are your subjective response and described as such. You have a specific lo-fi approach to making work, the raw non-functional DIY doubles in on itself as everything seems incomplete and incoherent (in a good way). The positive move against interpretation is not clarified by adding more words. Do you think that visual languages are seemingly less polemic?
JM: Good question! Yes, someone came up to me and described my opinion as polemical, probably because my opinion had become so visible through writing prolifically for +BILLION–. I do think visual language is less polemical when an artist is intentionally trying to make ‘Art’. Visual language is less 'literal'. There is a fear of being obvious or being a cliché in the artworld. Such hackneyed ideas and symbolism are the very things that I have always invited into my practice with open arms.
In recent times art commentary has been turned on its head via online platforms. Writing for +BILLION– at the speed I did was always risky because I had no time to reflect on what I was saying because of the speed of the production. My opinion was completely subjective, but people will get annoyed, subjectivity doesn’t even come into it. A question at an art writing seminar summed it up for me: ‘have you not garnered some resentment by being so visible with your opinions on art’.
AP: With the silhouette line up of art world protagonists in the video THELASTWORDSHOW it is clear that you are the tall guy in the middle, neither gallerist, curator or artist – does that mean you are the art critic or should we consider a wider range of task masters? The headless chicken as artist reminds me of a Pablo Helguera cartoon without the punch line, what's yours?
I am going to take the Liam Gillick line and say that THELASTWORDSHOW is part of one long project starting with my first solo show in Belfast in 2008. Of course someone coming fresh to my work – which you are not – would see this as a reductive line-up of artworld protagonists, and you are right to a point. I am not portrayed at all in the line-up. Curators are women (cliché). Gallerists are men (scaled-up masculine cliché). Artists are headless chickens. However, the line-up is more about ritual. One of the curators wears a chicken head, and so does a gallerist. The silhouette display was also conceived in the light of The Lab architecture as it is the only type of projected image that would offer the contrast needed in the bright daylight of the gallery. There are no punch lines, my wife has always assured me that I am not funny. I was hoping to avoid accessorising for the sake of my aesthetic. Everything was linear like Victorian silhouettes. I am also drawn to early to mid- twentieth century aesthetic. The lightbox in the ‘darkroom’ also plays with this era with the silver screen lighting and Wizard of Oz audio extract "What a world, what a world."
AP: It could be said your work emerged out of (and past) old school relational aesthetics – superficially with plywood as primary material and parallel narratives in and behind the work. Yet you didn’t enter the collaborative fallacy that drove the early days.
JM: Yes, my art practice could be described as 'relational aesthetics for one'. Art college can be partly thanked for that as there exists a hearty promotion of competitiveness and 'social sculpture' practice in current art education. Such collective 'get-togethers' remind one of what Marcel Broodthaers once said about art being a space in which you could practice insincerity and be congratulated for it. I'm not complaining, but I don't believe in collectivism, as it is the epitome of implicit insincerity: although I love the aesthetic of Rirkrit Tiravanija I have no plans to invite a bunch of strangers over to be force-fed theories on conviviality. Honestly, my aesthetic is as much a reflection of my interest in horror movies as it is relational aesthetics. I like alienation, not friendship rings.
AP: You have yet to enter the art market either but we see a ‘gallerist’ character in this show. You seem already deflated from initial efforts to communicate. How do you hope to resolve this?
JM: I view the gallerist and gallery and art market as supernatural entities. They fascinate me with regard to their strange sustainability and relationship with their stable of artists. I have seen artists get freaked out in anticipation of a studio visit by a gallerist; and these are artists who are represented by the gallery. We were talking earlier about the critic's subjective opinion, well, to my mind the gallerist performs on another level of subjectivity. They are omnipotent arbiters of taste until the day when the artist overtakes them on the road to establishment. You ask: 'how do I resolve my imaginary relationship with the art market and gallerist?' I don't! I really do think that I work best on the periphery. My favourite creative endeavours have always been off-site.
AP: Influences become very slippery as time moves on – Donald Judd becomes Liam Gillick becomes Richard Prince becomes Donelle Woolford etc. backward and forward. You’ve found your own route, although it’s still early days, in developing a visual vocabulary. I include here your voice as a critic, but also the way you interrogate odd media moments, what’s a good place to locate what you do in another art persona, movement, tendency, approach?
JM: I respond to artists who provoke with personality, not an art methodology. Early Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Brock Enright, Jason Rhodes, are (were) fuelled on self-indulgency. All artists are self-indulgent to a point, as one of my one-liners says in "The man from Nantucket" paper text work: ‘The artist said his first and last word – ME’. But as a viewer of art I respond to explicit displays of self-interest, no, self-direction is a better way to describe it. I distrust artists who make work that looks like it has already been 'curated'. After reviewing shows consistently over a three year period I can tell when an emerging artist with such a curated tendency will become the next pet of a curator or institution. It's horrible when you are proven right because art ideally should not be designed, but it invariably is.
AP: The two video works with paper and light flare cross reference for me "The man from Nantucket" text piece. I did laugh out loud at this text piece; it’s beautifully poignant and pathetically self-serving (in a good way). I was wondering what are the sources for these dark sneering clichés?
JM: "The man from Nantucket" text piece was borne out of play rather than cynicism. I wanted them to be as reductive as possible so there were no ambiguities. The persistent 'black and white' tones that runs throughout the show are tonally prejudiced. In contrast the paper texts are set against prettier baby pinks, yellows, blues, greens, but what is said on them has a capacity to either make people laugh out loud (I did when writing them), or quietly brew in their personal rejection of what is being said. Some people say that I am angry in these works when in fact I never had so much fun. It definitely is true that it's more fun being Hyde, until you wake up to the public's reception. American painter John Currin once said that he wanted to make clichés 'truer' than they already are in his work. That statement jumped off the page for me way back when I was preparing a portfolio for art college. I did notice retrospectively that all the art objects in THELASTWORDSHOW are inscribed with text, which portrays me as a control freak, because there is a literal 'spelling out' of all the work, and so I have almost full control in how they are meant to be 'read'.
AP: In the 1980s there was a band called Pop Will Eat Itself and a book called The Anti-Aesthetic. Neither proved to be true, but your work performs many of their inherent tropes and truly embraces a way of art trying really hard not to look good. Nowadays even abject art looks great and fresh, not abhorrent and disturbing. Do you think it’s possible to upset anyone but the ‘gallerist’?
JM: My fondest memories in an art context were in art college during class 'crits' when I was making deliberately badly made and awkward-to-enter installations. The responses by student peers was abject anger, which they couldn't hide when forced to respond to the work by tutors. In one instance, during my MFA degree show I overheard a visitor shouting profanities at my work to a friend, saying: 'this "shite" is what they call art in NCAD’. At the time I was playing with obscurity, which can mean everything and anything. But I have to say I always thought what I was making was beautiful, things that I would like to own myself. I never saw them as anti-aesthetic. I suppose I was more interested in the 'anti-object', which perhaps comes across as anti-aesthetic.