Opening event including John Court in conversation with André Stitt

Saturday 29 September 2012, 3–5pm

This is a quiet exhibition. There is stillness, silence, there are calm objects … and then I become aware of a sound, at first like a bird cheeping, a squeak …. When I come into room on the left, and see the monitors I realise this is the sound of a felt-tip on board, the squeak of the marker as letters are formed, as lines are inscribed to build up into words, into a statement, and as continuing they obscure those marks already made. John Court’s work is quiet, and yet it is insistent, and determined. The stillness is an effect of concentration and focus, so it is less the still surface of a quiet lake, and more the taut surface of liquid in tension.

In many ways this show feels to be about materials. Not an Arte Povera presenting of chunks of stuff, or an neo-expressionist piling up of clashing things, but the paper and panels and graphite and pencil and glue and marker-pen and blocks have a quality of being themselves. Here are materials pushed about or pressed or moved by the artist. This in part may be due to an absence of images, or of the pictorial, of things represented or depicted in the work, so our attention is on what is here rather than what is shown.

To coincide with the exhibition opening Spacex arranged a conversation between John Court and the artist André Stitt. This took place in the gallery, with the work, and allowed Court to point to specific drawings or objects, and encouraged the audience to question him directly on aspects of his practice. Stitt addressed Court’s dyslexia and its impact on the work, and also raised questions around a wider understanding of ‘drawing’, and suggested links to Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology. This direction in the conversation might seem a move away from my sense of a concern with materials and materiality, but the abstract and the conceptual are grounded in the physical and the bodily for John Court.

As Court and Stitt conversed, it became apparent that ‘drawing’ was a physical activity, and that the line resulting from the action of drawing was a bodily trace. The line is the trace of the drawer, and drawing extends to include the drawing of breath, and the drawing of sound or sustenance into the body. The body thus is connected, is extended out into its environment and the environment extends into the body. The line traces this arena of intersection, the action of marking or of making occurs in this body / world crossing.

The activity involved in making Court’s stencilled shaded glued and painted panels is of such extended laborious duration that engagement with this process, this task of making, almost displaces all other attention. A viewer comes before the pale square surfaces with their irregular lumps or bumps and imagines the time and effort, and perhaps boredom, involved in bringing them to be. In focusing on this slow tedious action I forget to see the thing in front of me, this panel, that is not an image, not a representation of some scene or entity, but a record of work done, a document of careful precise slow extended attention to making.

In the pencil drawings there is again a sense of the time taken and of the laborious, of the tedious or boring action involved as letter forms are placed and traced and linked and the ground between is filled with spaghetti or noodle forms. For Court, who states that he sees the forms of words rather than the significance of letters, the experience of printed text may be closer to seeing such wiring, or shredded paper, or noodles. An apprehension of text as a patterned field, as a surface distributed with regular marks precedes or overlays any reading of the marks and shapes as letters. This does not mean that the patterned surface is without meaning, as pasta or knitting wool has meaning and needs to be recognised when the question is whether or not to eat it. The distinction is not between a perception that does not recognise there is meaning in what is seen, but that does not recognise that the meaning is deferred, is transposed in some way. What is present here is the drawing, the presentation of the form of words, words that frustrate attempts at conventional reading. I can tell there are words here, and can hazard guesses at some of them, but I cannot resolve them into a narrative, or cannot get the strings to join up, to make sense. So, I return to the pattern and texture and recognise that the repetitive drawing action may be a (calming) response to the frustration of not getting it, of being closed out by (the) text.

This viewer’s activity of deciphering a resistant surface may parallel or exist in an equivalence to the resistance Court faces with everyday printed words. The works are presented, are proposed as a response to and a reflection of the closing out of the non-reader from the world of reading. That closing out can operate in other areas also, can relate to other boundaries that are policed by codes or shibboleths, with the artist’s statement functioning as one of these. For Court, the rise in importance of the artist statement as passport to a particular contemporary artworld, serves to displace the attention of viewers from the work to the words about or around the work. The requirement to produce, to present a statement in order for the work to be taken seriously, can act as a barrier to entry for artists who cannot, do not, or will not produce this text. Making the text the test of value, the measure of worth, avoids the difficulty of assessing the work, side-steps the problem of aesthetic judgement, and places the problem within an academic context, a context of interpreting a textual artefact, a task which is more explicitly codified.

Court’s response is to generate an excess of statement, to multiply the elements of the text, to distribute these in endless repetition of the units from which the text is composed. By this action the text is made incomprehensible, made illegible, or made opaque. If the intention of the artist statement is to offer an access onto the work, a translucent screen between audience and artwork, then Court’s expansion and dispersal of the statement blocks this, returns us to the work, interposes the work between us and the text again.

Court again offers an excess of information in the layered video documentation of his writing actions. A build-up of data and of gesture creates an opaque centre where the viewer is aware of activity, of repetition, of a body involved in marking, but where the excess of marking results in an abstraction. Event time is overlaid, resulting in a veiling of particular marks, letters or words, and presenting the audience with the information that writing has taken place, but not access to what those marks might read as.

In other action documentation, Court presents the viewer with an apparently simple pared-down action, or activity. Here there may seem to be less to interpret, less to read, and so less that is or can be obscured, yet in their openness, in their lack of information, and with their excessive or extended duration, the audience is pushed to fill in, to ascribe motive, to suggest intention, to imagine. I see Court standing, or sitting, or lying, for hours, and imagine narratives to account for this, imagine the physical experience of extended stillness, of discomfort, of boredom. And in imagining this I am writing my imagined (empathetic) experience onto the still body. The time I am given in which to do this fills up with my thoughts, my questions, my story, and the apparently emptied action is overlaid with layers of words.

In response to a question about the influence of the Finnish landscape, Court replied, “it teaches you to be patient, to accept being there longer”. The works here may have an equivalent effect on the visitors to Court‘s exhibition. They repay time and attention, and offer access to another way of being with language. In the eight-hour performance planned as a closing event for the show (Saturday 24th November), the audience will have an opportunity to experience the live elements of Court’s practice, and the challenge to be patient, to remain there longer.