Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, UK
North West England

Barthes and Quaife
In the UK, the letters B and Q generally reference a chain of retail park DIY superstores – playgrounds for generations of amateur builders – started by Misters Block and Quayle.

Alternatively ‘B/Q’ is Manchester (UK) Castlefield Gallery’s new exhibition in which artist Magnus Quaife dismantles French thinker and literary theorist Roland Barthes’ heartfelt imitations of painter Cy Twombly’s pastel toned, relatively highbrow abstractions, then constructs original Quaife’s from the fragments.

Barthes ‘Death Of The Author’ famously removed, or sidelined, the author as the primary creator of the meaning, or meaningfulness, of text; unpicking the nature of writing itself. His ‘S/Z’ analyzed a Balzac short story to further define the loose plurality of codes which weave through narrative structures.

Most germane to Quaife’s exhibition of paintings, watercolours and photographs, ‘A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments’ assembled a book from fragments of previously published literature and Barthes own thoughts.

Once dynamically undermining of the previously accepted notion of the author, and by extension the creative artist full stop, Barthes’ questioning of a specific textual meaning and of authorial authority has become something of an art school orthodoxy of its own, a fact openly acknowledged by Quaife in an introductory presentation of his new work.

So, using reproductions of Cy Twombly’s paintings and of Barthes own fanboy transcriptions of Twombly’s style as a raw material, physically cut into ragged islands of colour, parodied in watercolour and moved sequentially around a monochrome blue ground in a looped series of slides, Quaife has taken Barthes literally. He has dismantled images of the French thinkers Sunday paintings and their acts of creative restaging to build something new.

In the largest work, one panel of a large diptych has painterly white impasto peppered with fragments cut out of Twombly poster reproductions and rephotographed catalogue pages of Barthes speculative parodies of Twombly’s ouevre. The other large white near square canvas has previously acted as a temporary holding surface for the fragments and is polluted by scrapes and marks left in the transference of the scraps from one surface to another.

It slowly becomes apparent that for Quaife ‘B/Q’ is both an act of homage and a blackly comic enactment of patricide.

The elephant in the room seems to be the works of Cy Twombly themselves.

Twombly’s productions often seemed an idiosyncratic collision of American and European strands of painting. Sometimes he has seemed too faux-academic and historically grounded for the American critical palate, just not as pragmatically and holistically graphic as American abstract paintings’ bold rectangles demanded.

Working Post-Pollock, he was never concerned with defensively cynical reconstructions of the liberated and gestural, his fluid moments of painting jostling in contradistinction to an authentically awkward and cramped aesthetic of application; stubby whorls and dribbles of paint sitting on an infinity of off-white, marks sometimes scratchy and indecisive as though produced by the weaker writing hand.

However, for all his references to Classical myths and European poetry, Twombly always balanced the elusive particularities of the visual with an unspoken need to invest in haptic fact, a stubborn insistence that artists play with the stuff of paint; materially imperfect, solid and soiled as it may be.

Destabilizing scatological echoes punctuate most of his Apollonian musings. His large paintings hang on a wall like elegant twitching carcasses; wounded, damaged but still dreamily airy spaces waiting to be filled with the substance of a discourse.

More than merely alluding to written text Twombly’s works simulate the often awkward physicality of making a mark; a grounding physicality under-acknowledged by Barthes’ fanboy transcriptions, intentionally overemphasized in Quaife’s work.

Quaife’s act of parring the tangle of theory and literary allusion and speculation back to the painterly fact of Twombly’s pictures-as-things has an element of straight-faced comedy about the whole enterprise – a stumbling visual braille attempting, against all the odds, to have its own say, knowing damn well that it will fail.

Finally the tone here is simultaneously archaic, off-kilter and entirely contemporary because it senses the essential schizophrenia driving Barthes acts of transcription.

For both Quaife and Barthes there is a keening for the simple pleasurable stupidity of painting a picture, undercut by a sophisticated knowingness of the operations of the pictured which never allows this to be an option.