Essay by Clive Walley
Written in response to Alan McPherson's Retrospective in 2016
While at university McPherson acquired a reputation as a Modernist actor, a very funny revue comedian, a vitriolic comic-strip artist and a prolific painter. He was Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, soloed in Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, started a radical theatre company, and was slightly feared, in a John Lennonish way, for his one-line putdowns and revolutionary politics. He also wrote art criticism for ArtScribe, one of the scarier art magazines. This portrait of his early self I introduce in order to amplify any misleading impression that the tag, “professional philosopher”, might otherwise give. It will be important if I try to connect his philosophy with his painting that, that which in him exceeds philosophy, is remembered.
Of his very early painting I remember a very long row of small paintings of heads– each tiny painting a portrait of all the melancholy of the human condition. The Bodafon Man series has the grim humour of that series of heads. If you can see Beckett as funny then the Bodafon Man is funny; like a clown he weeps and laughs at the same time. Nowadays we might see that sensibility as the outgoing tide of a post war humanism which put an existentialist anxiety about the reliability of civilisation at its heart. As a sensibility though it turned out to be a harbinger of the future as much as a hang-over from the past.
When McPherson and family moved to the East Midlands the sheer size and flatness of the landscape overtook him. His researches for the “What We Have” show, which he curated and which he moved there to do, included the collection of some aerial photographs of the area. Nearby Borough Hill, a famous Iron Age archaeological site, was the subject of some of the photos and is the subject of some of the paintings as well. Later, work for English Heritage helped to confirm an interest in what lay under the landscape as well as the farming methods above, and the history of rural industrial exploitation. It wasn’t long before he was digging in.
The large Lincolnshire landscapes of this time are indicators of his technical knowledge of the changing zeitgeist of the time. In them there are several modes of painting operating at the same time; heterodox sign systems are swept together in roiling, vibrant, windy washing lines of pictures. They should fight with each other, the elements of them I mean; the wavy lines of triangles, the insistent strings of dots, the upside down trees, the shouting colours, the wind blown pennant edges. Sometimes a fluttering flag, or maybe it’s a field, flies in the middle of a becalmed flat surface, and buzzing through it, in and around, a line of bunting to be counted as a medieval ditch boundary – a shivering bunch of triangles shepherded into a corner to be understood as corn stooks in a field. Marvellous! These are to be read, to the extent that they are the pictures of the new breed of philosopher, as competing sign systems vying for our reading eye; they are models of a “languaged world” as some of those philosophers called it. So how do they work?
The form of thinking that was being edged out by this new stuff was called Modernism. From the Impressionists in France to the Abstract Expressionists in America this movement might be characterized as a sequence of arguments between groups of artists each declaring that they had the exclusive access to the truth which everyone was looking for. It petered out about the time McPherson first hit the art stage in the 1960’s. In the transition there were several short lived movements, Pop Art and Op Art among them. Many other forms of art sprang out of this time and the precedence Painting had had during the Modernist period, came under critical review. Painting started to take a back seat to installation, art film, performance and perhaps most seriously to Conceptualism. Some, at least, of the concept art was fixed to the walls of art galleries where painting had always held court before, so the contest for the actual space of painting became pointed and real. But the new mind set deconstructed the very way that art made its meanings in the first place. The place of language as a “world” maker, the politics of access to the priestly privileges of the artist, including the disadvantages faced by women, non-whites and ex-colonials were all in contention. The place of Marxian analyses, psycho-analytic perspectives and a critical focus on the philosophy underlying science, all shouting at the same time, broke the hegemony of Western Painting made by white men. For those men the Apocalypse was come…. “We are all post conceptualists now”, it was said, and as a consequence another “post” was ushered in, our present Post Modernism.
If you had the unusual intellectual skill-set of McPherson though and, as I have hinted, something of his mischievousness, then perhaps this threat to the soul’s homeland would be resistable. Looking at his landscapes of the time, surely it is the joy in the achieving of them, the devilry in breaking all those Modernist rules, that we experience. I am not aware of any feelings of disempowerment or confusion. He was at home in the changing times because he could do the reading and recognized the force for good that lay therein. He was the Apocalypse! Without his pizzazz, this bravura in the storm of change, these pictures would reduce down to professor-approved academy pieces. It turns out that there is much more to art than philosophy and here you get an idea of what.
As in the landscapes, the 3D works were part of a continuing enquiry into the relationship between paint and space. (I suppose it is valid to separate the interest in space from his interest in other less intrinsic aspects of painting, like his subject matter, the fields, the map legend items etc. because space and paint, as a focus of interest, go back a lot further than Post Modern philosophy). Among his previous paintings there is evidence of an impatience with the flatness of the normal canvas and it is not too difficult to imagine his reasons for wishing to introduce actual space into his work. In the late 1940’s early 50’s, before the new philosophies struck, Clement Greenberg was a major force in art critical circles. He recommended that painting emphasise its essentially flat condition and not have anything to do with illusions of depth at all. In the spirit of the times as they then were, he made it heresy to do so. You may notice in McPherson’s drawings a tendency for the whole page to be covered quite evenly (all-over) in small brushed marks. Some of that is his love of Matisse who wanted his drawings to look a lot like a bright piece of paper, but some of it is obeisance to the Greenberg dictat, keeping the drawings flat like paintings – though that does not diminish them of course. I mention it because those dictats run far and wide and a conscientious artist will always be in contention with them. The first cubists took a new interest in the issue and you could argue, so did the Renaissance painters when they revived the technique of perspective. So the built-up paintings, with their glass fronts, are internal discussions he was having with widely circulating ideas about the proprieties of painting , in particular what it should be doing with space.
One of those ideas, though, did come out of the new philosophy. Maurice Merleau Ponty, philosopher, reminded us that the “self” is not a pinpoint peering through a spy hole, as physical science would have it, but a living, fleshly body. The “world” arises from a partnership between that living body and the rest. Between them they create a living world, mutually supportive. McPherson took from this a wish to make work which responded to the movement of our embodied selves – hence the mirrors and the shadows cast by the marks on the glass front, which can be obscured and revealed as you affect the light falling on it. He wanted us to recognise the reciprocity our mobile relationship with them creates. He even tried this in flat paintings using reflective underpaintings, making them change as you moved about them. They are models of the world seen from this new perspective as much as they are conventional art works for decorating a wall somewhere.
In 1999 he took up the study of philosophy with Middlesex University. In 2001 he wrote a professional paper called “Framing Jackson Pollock”. It is a profound and lucid account of what the new philosophy had achieved for the visual arts and is the first product of McPherson’s recent doctoral studies. After that MA it took the best part of 8 years to get the Doctorate he now has. The recent glittering pictures, the Minimal ones, must show the effect of this doctoral study of Theodore Adorno in some way, but I don’t know how to deduce that. He’ll have to help out with that one day. Whatever Adorno has contributed it is clear that the new pictures have broken new ground for McPherson. His abiding love of music, including some of it’s more arcane forms, has definitely helped to affirm this new direction, though I do know that music was Adorno’s first interest in the arts and that he had trouble deciding between a musical career and philosophy. For McPherson the choice was between Painting and Philosophy. He decided to do philosophy, but through the medium of Painting!
From Bach’s Art of Fugue through to the 20th Century composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Hans Otte, a spare and sublime form of music fills the studio during the working day. If there had been no other art like his new pictures this tradition would be enough to provide intellectual and emotional support, but I think there is the parallel with “System Painting” or “Process Art” as well. Artists like Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland produced paintings, as far as they could, by employing formulae to direct their operations. For McPherson these rules include things like how many brush strokes there will be of a certain colour before the canvas is turned by 90 degrees (on the propeller) and the formula repeated, or how many sizes of brush are engaged at any one time, and the rules even determine the price they are to be sold at by using a per square centimetre unit price. This unit price is different for drawings, painting on paper and paintings on canvas. There is a critical edge to this. Our over-managed world leaves no time in it for the random, that part of the world which the Continental philosophers re-introduced to us and called “context”. That is the part of the world (or life), which is not susceptible to measurement and instrumentality, meaning, that is, most of it. By setting up a process which pretends to completely manage the production of such a living thing as a painting he intends to subvert our confidence in our present efforts to bring in everything to fit the plan. True to the Minimalist tradition, he knows that somehow the picture will wrestle itself free from the rules, and shout out a meaning – human to human. That is news we need to hear. But another influence, on minimalist music at least, comes from a spiritual source. John Tavener, Arvo Part, Hans Otte lean that way and John Cage, again in the spirit of his times, was interested in the spirituality of the East; not the Protestant self-denial that rages through a lot of western art, but a source of transcendental pleasure. Stare into the centre of one of the new square paintings..do they not radiate?
There is something of Beckett again in this artful narrowing and gagging, especially the knowing that it cannot finally be fatal to meaning. Perhaps that spaceship/shed is in some orbit from which a wider view is available. Perhaps there is more in his philosophy than the influence of other minds. In the end Art communicates between living people who have a lot more going on between them than any critical analysis or logic can elucidate. Painting and rules have a long shared history, but painting, (maybe we should say Art now), ultimately belongs with Life which runs bumpily along on ambiguity and double meanings all the time. These paintings, quite obviously, triumph completely over their rule bound origins as he knew they would. Whatever the original Minimalists thought they were doing, and whatever influences have or have not helped produce this new work, McPherson is here, at the very least, winning a game with logic, the first philosophy he studied all those years ago!
There’s that grin again.. (I think)!