A RESPONSE TO LOUID JECK PRESTIDGE’S FRONT COVER.
I want to make a case that Louis Jeck Prestidge’s painting Front Cover works by inviting dialogue/conversation with a spectator but resisting interpretation/paraphrase: encouraging encounter and engagement but refusing a fixed meaning.
In a Bakhtinian sense every utterance is an answer/a response. Therefore, Jeck Prestidge’s painting is an answer, is a response. And this reading of it, as an utterance, is a response, which must take responsibility for itself
The responses are real but cannot claim to be true, or only to the extent, as Deleuze, responding to Nietzsche, would argue, we get the truth we deserve according to the sense we make.
What happens depends on how we comport ourselves, cognitively physically, ethically, aesthetically in response to the painting – as the figure in the painting literally comports itself/strikes an attitude – to fully engage in an extended moment of expressive reading of a moment of readerly expression – a moment both absolute and contingent.
In this model of reading, that moment is determined by a principle of what you see is what you get. It is the nature and quality of the response that matters, brings something into being as well as affirms the moment of reading: taking a moment as both a point in time and the turn of a force. Questions that insist during the event of the response are what turns here and now and in the context of this painting, and what is the poetic imperative of this turn?
And, as if to illustrate this, the figure in the painting is literally caught in a moment of turning, a frame frozen from a filmed sequence. Whether the spectator knows this fact would be material to a reading and whether the spectator has seen the video would also be material to this reading event. In each one of these cases there is a potential reading but inflected differently. I know these things, but I don’t know other things about the making of this painting and am unwilling to speculate about Jeck Prestidge’s intentions. (I am – intentionally – accounting for my response to the painting in the exhibition before Jeck Prestidge presents his artist’s talk. I look forward to hearing what he says and to how this re-versions my reading of the painting.)
I can only say what I see and account for what occurs as I see. I am bound to carry into this moment/act/event of reading what I have seen before, some of which I find myself recalling at this point. So, this cannot be said to be an objective reading in the accepted sense but, if it is to be a productive moment of engagement, then it needs to be one that does not confirm the spectator who comes to it but affirms a new spectator coming into being. This is the ethico-aesthetic heart of the matter of poetic imperative, which is a doubly inflected process in itself; the WHAT – what the painter NEEDS to do in this painting and what potential effect, or effective potential, the painter consequently presents to the active, engaged reader; the HOW – the decisions NECESSARY to this painting about material choice and use and about form and structural procedures of forming and the interaction between material and form that produces the painting’s effective potential, potential effect in the active, engaged reader
The reader in this process is an embodied mattering, not an ‘I’ preceding but an ‘I’ coming into being. This ‘I’ only lasts as long as it is expressively reading but allows the painting to make a determining mark.
Though I cannot read Jeck Prestidge’s mind - I am not convinced by ‘theories of mind’ anyway - I do experience a sensation of physical mirroring in looking at the figure in this painting (and the figure in Sitting on the Bed in an Awkward Position.) What I experience, therefore, is the capturing of a dynamic moment, a form of visual, haptic, proprioceptive haiku (but not one there should be any ekphrastic temptation to write).
The notion of awkwardness becomes quite salient: ‘awkward’ with its sense of turning toward in a determined way whilst being contrary, turning toward contrariwise, bending, winding: a conjuring feat of leger de corps. But this feels more in the spirit of absurd humour than deceit. It seems to be a showing, a poetic artifice foregrounding the inevitable fallibility of being human and the inherent nobility of both realising and living this. (Absurd as in Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.)
The painting strikes as a sort of workshop of potential tragi-comedy, arguably, literally, as well as metaphorically, what life is; a correlation of the sublime and the mundane; a simultaneity of the theatrically dramatic and the bathetic (however, bathetic in a way that informs and resonates, enhancing a sense of embracing human circumstance, rather than diminishing it). To make bathos a productive poetic device is an achievement. There is gaucheness but also dignity; the painting does not apologise and it does not explain; it defiantly has multiple associations and no fixed meaning. The more it signifies, the less it signifies: polyvalent and perverse, in Deleuze’s sense of insistently turning aside the surface of meaning. And this is also productive, dynamic, turning meaning from something contained in the work to something coming into being through it. It has something of the ever-accumulating, ever-dispersing effect of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. But it does this on its own terms; it is what it is, and it does what it does.
Reading it becomes a sort of dérive, entirely contingent but contingently entire.
The painting’s art-historical associations are an absurdist game for the occasion but, again, they are resonant; a startled Christ in the pose of Titian’s Noli Me Tangere; Saint Sebastian caught out by the archers in a suburban hallway. All this vulnerability is channelled by an absurdly ordinary human figure apparently exposed on the front cover of a magazine.
Not Time magazine but The Radio Times (which might fall at the figure’s feet through the letterbox of the suburban front door): a quaintly benign, even antiquated, publication. Or is it? What war-time propaganda? What class-based manipulation of information and entertainment? What simultaneity of prudery – the sacking of Christopher Trace from Blue Peter for an extra-marital indiscretion – and the predatory paedophilia of ‘family favourites’ – Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, and before them, ‘Uncle Mac’.
This fictive Radio Times captures Jeck Prestidge’s posed figure – posed twice, his physical body and the painting’s composition – even as he uses the magazine as a device. Given the device, there might be more beyond the cover, more human drama, more exposure, more artifice, more comic turns. But this is all in the realm of the potential; the painting qua painting reads as it does not read, as it cannot read what happens next.
This is a Passion in a palette of restricted colours, melancholy and intense. The instances of affective colour set up a Lewis Carroll space of mundane objects which dematerialise on examination. The area behind the figure is ambiguous to the point of unreadability. Likewise, the ‘framed’ furniture-item on the right, apparently proves to be there in order to be a block of dark blue-grey that echoes the floor and the figure’s supposed ‘loincloth’. The circular patch of blue above it that in a 1950s hallway would be a mirror, fails to be one. But all this failed meaning aesthetically signifies as an immaterial presence that is in dialogue with the fleshly body, rather in the manner of the sunset with the ship in Turner’s Fighting Temeraire. The highlights beneath the piece of disappointed hall furniture do not read iconographically either but are a discontinuous continuation of the hectic highlights on the body. The loincloth (more cloth-like here than the agonising gaffer-tape of the original video) becomes another moment in the colour dynamic, between the floor and the magazine banner. But its tone is affecting as well as structurally effective and also associative – ‘bad’ startled Christ/Saint (?) (like the cowboy in the black hat).
The figure is visually severed at the ankles or in a literal reading he has left his socks on, like a man in a Victorian porn photo trying to keep his feet warm in a cold studio:y socks which merge into the uncertainly material floor.
This is a translated figure, taken from somewhere – literally Jeck Prestidge’s earlier video – to here, to reconfigure itself, like Duchamp’s chocolate grinder.
Even as the figure is held in an instantaneous intake of breath, the surface is perpetually turning, raising more questions than it answers. Nevertheless, its poetic imperative produces a consequent imperative for a spectator to answer, to expressively read, and this is both fascinating and awkward: any reading is bound to be incorrect, turned the wrong way, as well as real.
Patricia Farrell is a Poet and visual artist based in Liverpool.