2021 - by Daniel Rapley
John MacLean has often conspired to create tension between representation and abstraction in his photographs, inviting us to consider the relationship between images and reality. Conversations is a new chapter in this developing enquiry. But whose conversations are they, exactly? And where are they taking place? Questions and uncertainties will mount as you attempt to navigate MacLean’s new world of ambiguously simple, conceptual topographies.
Set amongst banal backdrops of corporate non-places, his photographs are emptied of visual clutter and eerily devoid of human presence. Silent, except for the imagined echoes of our own solitary footsteps upon their polished concrete floors, these postmodern vestibules, back rooms and corridors become unsettling arenas for the uncanny. For here be imposters: the flat, irreducible, translingual motifs commonly known as Emojis. It is as though the representational fabric of each photograph has split at the seams, allowing these graphic entities to bleed through from another visual dimension.
MacLean’s proclivity to test his audience is evident from the start. An undeniable friction within the collision of these disparate representational languages slows the reading of the images. And for some, perhaps, the lowbrow, visually impoverished status of the Emoji may seem a bitter pill to swallow in the context of his pictures. But since MacLean refers to his Emojis as agitators, it would appear to be an entirely deliberate attempt to frustrate a quick and easy aesthetic allegiance with the work. As a result, these pictures playfully satirise the pretensions of the Art World by revealing the codified hierarchies of visual culture which give it meaning and currency.
British artist Patrick Caulfield also delighted in testing the aesthetic limits of his audience. His paintings move between awkward decorative kitsch and cartoon-like, ‘ligne claire’ rendered imagery. On the surface, his paintings appear wilfully naive, but their formal simplicity is deceptive: it masks the sophistication with which they probe the architectures of representation.
This witty dissection of the mechanics of the image is also present in MacLean’s series. The punctuations of masterfully rendered photorealism in Caulfield’s canvases from the mid-1970s onwards, which rupture an otherwise flat, stylised image, provide a painterly equivalent to MacLean’s visual mischief: the two appear to be perfect reversals of each other. If one could imagine existing within a Caulfield painting, then an encounter with a picture from Conversations would elicit the same conceptual effect in that dimension as a Caulfield painting would in reality.
The late Middle English origin of the word conversation means to ‘live among’, which is precisely what these Emojis attempt. Like spies in a foreign land, they are desperately trying to blend in. At first glance, some hide with enough subtlety to provoke a double take: did I just see that? An inexplicable hole (to who knows where) on a mosaic floor is a good example … and a strong contender for the portal through which the others arrived. Others, however, are not so effective. Perhaps caught off guard by the viewer, they were forced into plain sight, or have comically misunderstood the logic of their new world.
But just as I begin to smugly mock their faux pas, my visual confidence is further undermined. The suspicious, shadow-dwelling parcel in Package is clearly an Emoji, but how certain can I be of the ‘realness’ of its vicinity? If the plinth and walls are ‘photographic’, they have been abbreviated to the very cusp of illustration. The same hesitance is present when my gaze is hypnotically drawn to the flattened flash-shadows in Dollar Bill or Kite (which again remind me of the abstracted shadows in Caulfield’s later, more reductive works). Are they real? And, for that matter, what do I even mean by real?
When my ability to distinguish between these orders of ‘un-realness’ wavers, even momentarily, a slight panic takes hold as I fumble to restore visual reason, like a camera frantically hunting for focus in the dark. Subsequently I find myself applying a more stringent analysis of the work, scrutinising the authenticity of each pictorial component to avoid further deceits. But it is within these flickering interstices of conceptual uncertainty, these momentary perceptual glitches and their mildly disorientating effect, that I find myself transfixed. Perhaps the delineation between these two visual codes is more fluid than I thought. Neither are materially there; both are as illusory as each other.
A map is clearly not the same as the territory it depicts. But if I’m struggling to differentiate between the orders of simulacra in MacLean’s pictures, then Conversations begins to read like a cautionary tale — one analogous to the crumbling ruins of the real in that famous Borges fable, used analogically in that famous Baudrillard text.
Today our perception of the world is increasingly distorted through the lens of digital media. And photography influences our behaviour, organises our lives and even shapes our identities. As John Culkin put it in 1967: “ We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.” New generations of digital natives — born into the attention economy and umbilically tethered to their cameraphones — rarely question the Photoshopped fictions of social media. The images we produce and consume are slowly veiling the world, and the internet has become a hall of mirrors where the pursuit of factuality is like knitting fog. The images we once created to orientate ourselves in the world now threaten the opposite.
MacLean’s series teeters at the opening of the virtual rabbit hole. What madness might unfold if we stumbled further down into the darkness? I imagine we’d find ourselves lost in a recursive museum of simulacra, constructed from a labyrinthine warren of hyperlinked galleries, uncertain as to whether we were visitors or exhibits, all meticulously coded by the digital ghost of Borges.
By artist Daniel Rapley