national point size & the balls to use it, or living with prolepsis, or how I was pistaken, before & after: pretentious notes on Tristan O’Shannessy’s Kindling, poster art, presently a work in progress

Kindling sounds childish, as if it were the diminutive form of a kind, a pet-name for a unique kind, not German at all. And nothing to do with fardels or faggots. In Kindling, an exhibition of graphic works, it is this sense of the graphic and graphic sense which comes to the surface: original graphic design shown as poster art. This sense, before the fire.

– work in progress, courtesy Tristan O’Shannessy

We are not artists. We are not painters. We are a nation of graphic designers, not shopkeepers, but close. The spectre of a drawing, the image of a graphism, haunts New Zealand’s fine art tradition, ghosting it from the time it was born. And, as is the rule with any critique of art, or internal examination, the small box is bigger than the one it is inside. Contemporary experience might dictate that it is the graphic element, as a combination of textual and pictorial contents in modes of form borrowed from and endorsed by popular and commercial media, graphism, which is pregnant?

Just as we have neither a literature, nor writers who can claim to have grown up with a literary tradition, and are, it sometimes seems, a nation of children’s book writers, so we prefer Tintin to Titian. Our native preference is for Herge’s ligne claire over the adumbrative, the suggestive, against the undertow of an encumbered or infolded line – which already counts out everything from the Baroque to the Symbolist. Is it because we, children of the ‘green ghetto,’ are somehow predisposed towards it? Or does this line exist for the sake of a childlike character? Does it draw us on? Out?

What is the appeal of the clear line?

And then, what expressive medium doesn’t make use of graphic design? Isn’t it the fittest? The most effective arrangement of text and picture? Graphic design is honed for survival, an instrument capable of generating markets, and, on the way producing its own: as if it were the very medium of which McCluhan always already wrote.

But this is the point: there is something childish in the pursuit of communicative transparency; something about pursuing clarity which is exactly not about clarity or vitality or, even, novelty, let alone about the simplicity that contrasts with the sophistication of a certain ‘dying ember’ decadence, European, Belgian, for example. None of these, anyway, are sought for their own sake. Rather the appeal is latent in the kindling. It has a character which is determinedly basic in its psychology, childlike in its capacity to attract and attach.

Because we are a small country; because we are a young country; because the messages sent out by art have to work to sell themselves to a tiny population:

Sentiments, rather than arguments, indicating graphism’s place at the heart of endemic cultural production. Reciprocally, it is the character of that heart – of its affectivity – which is produced as ‘small’ and ‘young’ in a politics of representation. To determine exactly this character, in order that we can later recognise ourselves in the stories we tell, in the pictures we draw, we make graphic images which not only project and depict it, but are transparencies, optical lenses, through which it is visibly produced as an effect.

This representational relation we know as one to one, immediate: I AM. The appeal of the image, likewise its ability to intervene, optically, is predicated on immediacy: graphic, iconic, autographic.

The image, pictorial, textual, regardless of whatever optical effects it may have, is, above all, transparent. And it lacks a signature. Able to be attributed, graphic works generally remain unsigned. Modesty prevails as to attribution, here too, due to a reluctance to either prejudice the one-to-one representational relation or restrict the circulation of the image, in keeping with an economy of scale.

As to authorship, a protocol obtains, whereby a commercial client buys the silence of the author if he is small or, if great and if his greatness will further glorify the client, the noise of his name. Notwithstanding this commonplace arrangement, the name is usually a noise best excluded from the graphic surface, an exclusion promoting the notion of immediacy, understood as the absence of agency or mediation.

Without a name, no one intercedes between me and the self produced in the work. Nothing interrupts the totalisation of the picture plane to include me. But, more significantly, no one stops a process I want to think I’ve initiated: that of entering into a one-to-one abiotic relation of self and image.

The illusion to sustain is that of a two-dimensional symmetry: the graphic work, a unidimensional totality, takes nothing to itself from being seen, carries no extra weight, gains no gravity, becomes its very modest self, planar. Laminating the relation, the work remains, on the face of it, totally light, clear, fresh and free to circulate.

The impersonality of the graphic work is, in addition, that which leads the person or persons responsible to flee the surface scene, because of the potential for actual violence, a potential constitutionally bound in the image. And unbound in the self produced optically, under its lens. Agency, then, is withdrawn in case of a culpability for an act of violence, which would, in turn, also have been graphic.

More than modesty, the author’s anautographism entails taking a step away from the surface, a step further away than that already made when a ‘designer’ deals with the work as design, a self-effacement in keeping with the illusion of the image’s self-sufficiency. ‘Designer,’ ‘engineer,’ mechanist: because it should be apparent that there is both a mechanics of the graphic and an economy, which together clarify its position within a politics of representation.

The graphic image seizes on the critical continuum, that runs from obscurity to clarity, but actually works on the principle that size matters. Scale or operations of scale, which are definitely not 1:1, are and have been taking place out on the design field from the very first impression, the one that counts, immediately.

What else is at stake here but the pathos of Kindling, as a kind of diminution? Human-scale here means a reduction. We prefer the graphic image because it flatters us, before it flattens us. It caters to our childish predilections, as well as acknowledging our modesty; our suspicion of the intellectual, of sophistication; our fear of being taken in. We prefer its simplicity and the clarity with which it communicates, to the complexity and wilful indistinctness of art. We commend its democratising ethos, in contrast to any kind of elitism, artistic, or otherwise. In its popularity, we celebrate our sense of belonging; in its saturation of the mediascape, we identify with the messages that come to us: they come to us in text and picture so basic, if well designed, that their images are transparent to us, as we and our desires are to them. The sine qua non of graphic design has to be just such a transparent alphabet. However, we are not reduced to signs or symbols by the graphic work. It reduces us in size and scale.

Graphism is a force to shrink humans, as much as shrink-wrap human aspiration. However, this leaves out the inflationary part, the adding of value: the immodest talking up to sell how characteristically unassuming we are goes without being talked up. Once we are sold, attached to the modesty of its claims, to its self-deprecating humour, so not clever-clever, its appeal can be put down to a sense of the graphic image itself ‘sucking in,’ in reverse zoom. A ‘sucking in’ in which we are sucked in. To see the image blown up, posterised, is to encounter the contrary and complementary part of a kind of cycle to this ‘sucking in.’

A rhythm ensues over the two poles of graphic art, of (poster) art and (graphic) design: in just such an exhibition, a pathos of diminution, graphically represented, alternates with a dilatatory art practice, systole to diastole. Or, we are alternately sucked in and blown up.

– work in progress, courtesy Tristan O’Shannessy

In fact, we are sucked in to being blown up.

Until, facing diminishing returns, at a certain scale, and without necessarily losing any clarity, graphic sense implodes. And, after punctuating the end of the rule of representation over the graphic image with a giant full stop, art takes over. And, having caught alight, we are on fire.