As Such And In As Much As: TIM AYRES at PM/AM, until 4 April 2016
I wrote this painting sitting by my muse; Until it runs clear; Sad, I hadn’t realised that I’d died; The beautiful thud; I’ll wait for you here; I am not in love (no, no); Revealing certain softened forms; Sing then… These are titles of paintings not included in Tim Ayres’ exhibition of paintings at PM/AM, a very short walk south from Edgware Road tube station in the direction of Hyde Park.
Words are, exponentially it seems, everywhere. William S. Burroughs likened words (language) to a physical and viral infection. Words, as thoughts, scripts or as speech, occupy and filter through the inner and outer worlds we all inhabit. In verbal discourse, words can be whispered, delivered calmly, or bellowed ferociously. Often formed in print, and increasingly in digital form, words are virtually ubiquitous. Thinking about thoughts could drive you crazy. So, at arms length, on the page, the iPad or the Kindle, there’s a distance that enables the reader some objectivity. Likewise, words on canvas could similarly, at eyes length, offer some handy detachment.
Ayres’ painted words and phrases may have been sourced from overheard conversations, the radio, or, out of the blue, they just popped up in his mind in a seemingly casual way. In a recent email exchange to get the back story on As Such And In As Much As, Ayres referenced his profound love of music, lyrics and the influences of the recorded song: ‘I love the synthesis of music and song text. Music is the colour; the song text is the image. I keep thinking of the word ‘timbre’ – the timbre of an instrument, or a voice. It’s a timbre that I’m looking for in my work.’
Historically, the visual lexicon of painting seldom requires words as formal, visual content. There are notable exceptions that become memorable of course, such as Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1636-8) in the National Gallery collection; or Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop masterpiece, Whaam! (1963), a visitors’ favourite at the Tate Modern. My impression is that text as image in contemporary art is increasing despite the notion that artists paint what cannot be expressed in words. But in Ayres’ paintings we can consider the words as formal, visual content in the same way that colours, marks, textures and shapes are. This work offers the viewer the intriguing combination of text as image, where words are concurrently literal and abstract. At first glance Ayres’ paintings appear visually uncomplicated, which in a way, they are. Images are created, either with words, in the Eurostile Extended 2 font, or constructed from a rigid, or collapsing, linear framework. The visual information invites a reading and interpretation beyond face value. We are purposely not being told everything and must bring or make our own interpretations from the typographic or linear image content in conjunction with the painted elements.
Culturally, we are so attuned to the image/text conjunctions that feature in advertising that initially I wondered if the word content in the range of paintings would capture a viewers’ attention more immediately than other aspects of the works on display, but in fact it was the colours that made the first visual hit. The colour impact in all of the paintings, especially the strong pinks, reds and various blues that Ayers has chosen, creates continuity in colour contrasts to hold the visual diversity of the whole show together.
The silvery orange in Dead Is Easy, (2015), applied with a wide flat brush in glazed layers, forming a skin over the canvas, is as luscious and sweet as the fruit itself. At 195X130cm the work felt like a commanding human presence in terms of its physical size. Another image with strength in colour and paint application is, I’m Pregnant, (2015), consisting of blue letters on a red foregrounded colour-field overlaid on a blue ground that emerges at the lower edge of the canvas. How do we read this? Were the words originally spoken or texted? It’s all in lower case – but there is no exclamation mark to suggest elation. Could this be a celebratory announcement or a moment of despair? Pregnancy testing kits show blue or pink indicators – so do the colour combinations reference chemical colour coding and the fateful outcome? It’s a fragmentary statement, as are the other word images. The various titles give little away and offer overheard or half-recalled quotations up to interpretation.
There is no obvious context, which counterpoints a vacuum of sorts, and hence a possible dialectical reading of the work. A combination of the telematic (from the computer and contemporary) in relation to the haptic (related to hand-painted, gestural and evoking tradition) creates a tension. In what has been called Post-Internet Art (a term formulated by the artist Marisa Olson in 2009), many contemporary artists are appropriating images through or with digital technology in order to celebrate, undermine or exploit its presence. In the visual relationship between the modern Eurostyle typeface and the otherwise pre-Internet, painterly, faux-expressionistic surface I have a sense of an artist, with an instinctive, even Romantic, sensibility. The evidence for this is revealed through colour, albeit with a slightly reserved handling of paint. The paint treatment is successfully aligned to an anti-intellectualising decision making process that reveals itself in the almost offhand, witty or droll text casually, though carefully, integrated with the painterly backgrounds.
This text element is made from a vinyl-lettering stencil that is computer generated and machine made, but is not necessarily applied in contrast to the process of painting. Ayres has explained that: ‘Stencils have to be ordered and there’s an element of only getting one hit at it when it comes to it, so there’s a lot of mental preparation involved on the run in.’ This has changed my initial sense of the text content as imperatively mechanical, for even here there is the possibility of mishandling in applying the words during the painting process.
There is also a dominant visual and abstract sensibility in all of these works. They are non-figurative, non-perspectival, and concerned with the process of painting in addition to offering intriguing visual propositions. They stress surface and the materiality of the paint medium. Art historically, this approach to painting has antecedents in post war, New York School, Greenbergian, aesthetics. But in Ayres’ paintings there is a minimalist, detached, non-autographic presentation of the visual content: evidence of information (pictogram and digital text) for life in the new millennium?
All of the paintings in the show consist of forms, not only words, applied on top of layers of acrylic paint that opens them up for translation and meaning. Or no one meaning, but the potential of several? This is often a feature of poetry and songwriting, where improvisation or spontaneity, with a flow of words and sounds, is enough to create something persuasive, but with avoiding the obvious.
On a biographical note, Ayres had an inclination to be poet when he was much younger. Interestingly, two paintings at PM/AM feature the word poem: Poem (EPT), (2015) and another, smaller, mirror image: Poem (AK/AB), (2014), about a third smaller at 70X50cm. The larger work is coloured a hot, sexy, pink, whilst the other is dark grey. Both stress the double syllable of the word po-em, but the smaller work presents a mirror image of the word and has a sinister feel.
Replying to a question about his early interest in being a poet, Ayres replied:
‘I’d like to avoid this question… but in all honesty, yes, I guess so. But it’s not fulfilment, it just transpires. It was never schematic or tactical. It’s an organic process, evolving as one moves through one’s self. Looking back, one sees key moments in one’s activity and can say ‘oh yes’ and ‘of course, that makes sense’ about one’s practice. But you can’t project that sense or understanding forward. I guess that’s half of the fun of it. That all said, I don’t consider myself a poet.’
Ayres, born in Hastings in 1965, now lives and works in Amsterdam. He was born into a generation adapting and developing to the post-industrial, information age. With the advent of digital technologies and the questioning of painting as a dominant fine art medium, to the post-modern artist, sound, words, images and even time/duration are tools, materials and mediums. A supposed equality was proclaimed between all media and disciplines and any ingredients were deemed available to reconfigure and present ideas in an interdisciplinary conjunction. For example, the choice to present, or toy with, an ironic disconnection with language and imagery is suggested in Ayres’ paintings. However, Ayres eschews an overriding theoretical basis to his practice and rejects labels such as Linguistic theory, Semiotics, Critical Theory – or even Post-Internet.
Commenting on his post-graduate experiences: ‘When I first arrived in Amsterdam at the Rijksakademie, at the end of the ‘80s, the place was abuzz with post-modern discussion and I dipped into that, probably as a reactionary move against what I’d been shown to see as the old fashioned modernism of my education in Britain. New clothes, a new wardrobe to wear, a shift in identity in a new environment.
‘You know, the artwork as a text, simulacrum, the end of the pursuit to be original and even, oh dear, that painting was dead… So this is what I mean about ‘concepts back when’. Clothes suit us and then, perhaps in time, they stop suiting us. So no, I don’t align myself to any theoretical or critical style or basis.’
I asked him if, from a technical or thematic point of view, how he starts a painting?
‘Technically? I’m using a glazing technique, so there’s a notion that the first layer is of equal importance to the last. So, a layer of paint (is applied) to step outwards with. That first layer will be crucial in the voice that I think I want the painting to have later. Maybe like a harmony that will perhaps be audible, if only barely, in the final mix.
‘Thematically? The painting starts itself when it sees itself in the mind’s eye, mostly long before the painting starts.’
Tim Ayres is a painter, not a poet, and what the artist chooses to communicate non-verbally, is delivered exclusively through the medium of paint, his primary and un-literal, material. This visual content includes a paradoxical sense of the word or phrase, which is as visual as it is literal when made the subject, or figure, in a painting. But these are not adumbrated poems, making haiku look long-winded. The imagination should be present, or invited to a painting (or a poem) otherwise there is little of value.
In the Tom Tom Club song, Wordyrappinghood (1981) ex-Talking Heads member, Tina Weymouth, sings:
‘Mots pressés, mots sensés,
Mots qui disent la vérité, mots maudits, mots mentis,
Mots qui manquent le fruit d’esprit’
Which translates as:
‘Hurried words, sensible words,
Words that tell the truth, cursed words, lying words,
Words that are missing the fruit of the mind’
The last line from this verse (the three lines rhyme better in its original French) suggests that any word, or expression, can possess a rich, even latent, potential.
Tim Ayres’ word paintings remind me that every remark may have poetic nuance, even from a non-literary, everyday utterance.
PM/AM is at 259-269 Old Marylebone Road, London NW1 5RA:
Video of Tim Ayres in his studio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC5m_UT0ZT0