SO_Comedy of errors_sm

by Damien Wilkins

Simon Ogden makes uplifting artworks out of old lino. Of course there’s a bad joke hovering near that sentence; he also makes artworks out of uplifting old lino. And maybe that humour is not as deadly as it looks, or at least not totally out of place. There is something comic operating in Ogden’s pictures—his flora and fauna are funny as well as lovely.

But first we need to step close and see that they are surprisingly rough.

His pictures readily break down into their constituent parts—you can see the cuts, the shapes, the way he jigsaws the pieces into place. There’s nothing invisible in the technique. The feel of the blade is part of the effect, as is the sense of history, and not only the design history either—lino’s different looks—sometimes the stuff he uses has crumbled, exposing the weave of string, and we start to imagine the feet that have walked and rested on these bits of floor.

Given the self-evidence of process, the temptation might be to gather these works under the heading ‘craft’ and mark them down accordingly, except that there appears to be little of the artisan’s expertise or patience in this activity. Find your lino, decide on a background, cut out some elemental shapes—bird, tree, star—and arrange. For flowers, you could razor a flower shape, or better still, find a piece of floral lino. With its embrace of the ready-made, this is art you feel you could try at home—art indeed which you might have lying around at home. Pull up your old carpet and there could be a rich source of it, awaiting only a sharp knife. This is the powerful democratic charm of the works: they make us see how art can be made. (The idea that our versions would be as radiant and alluring as Simon Ogden’s is one we hardly hope for; even the most humble art moves us because of its separateness.)

Still, the notion that art might come not through a professional guild but through our own amateur instincts, and in this case, through our eye for recycled materials raises the spectre of the ‘found’. But are these ‘found’ works?

‘Found’ art—the poem made from a business manual, the sculpture made out of cotton buds—often finds its life in the comedy of disjunction. Cotton buds belong in your ear not in a gallery. The artist’s fancy tickles us, as those buds might if run across our cheek. The business manual language, inauspiciously dull, now broken into lines of verse, seems funny and strange: novel. Yet isn’t novelty a problem? The accusation might run that such art is frivolous. In fact, its vulnerability frequently lies in its earnestness. One learns again and again from the gallery wall or the author note that what was intended was ‘a commentary’ on technology, or ‘a critique’ of corporate language. The sliding feeling is that we are being asked to applaud not ‘fun’ at all but virtuous thought, not the full-bodied engagement with the scorned material but the inscription of distance—conceptual, ironical, superior. No matter the claims for playfulness, what motors much of this sort of work is the artist’s rightful disdain—‘I can make something better, more interesting than that. Something new.’

Simon Ogden’s work doesn’t feel like this. His ‘foundness’ has a different set of co-ordinates, and his radicalness has its source in a kind of sincerity. From the old lino he collects, he doesn’t make something else—not a cow out of milk bottles—he makes the same thing. He makes lino. His strategy is wonderfully free of implied commentary while still managing to be extremely witty. He simply creates the best-looking lino he can, in more or less unrepeatable small painting-size chunks. One could say he takes a machined, mass-designed product and, through a sort of rough surgery, makes it his own, and that if one is looking for ownership, the cuts are his brushstrokes—except that too sounds like the gallery wall-panel talking not the work itself.

What then is the work saying? Are these pieces indeed empty? Is the only story they can tell the one about their own making? Find some old lino and start cutting . . .

What about what’s in them? What are these things—the birds and trees and flowers—doing? One doesn’t hide a bird in a tree or place a moon in the sky without meaning something by it, surely.

Yet these are not personal works, at least not straightforwardly personal. The ‘Mexican’ pictures don’t record any autobiographical moment—Ogden has never visited Mexico. And while it signals an interest of the artist, this Mexico of the mind, with its cacti and deserts, is hardly a private concern. Indeed, the degree to which the iconography is generalised rather than internalised seems to underline the point about lino’s properties. One scarcely looks to lino for confession. The titles also point us not to some mystery but usually to what’s obvious in the works. Bird Moth Tree. Here again the artist seems to insist on transparency.

But art is not transparent. The phone book is transparent, and the road sign. We exhaust at once—thank goodness—their messages. We ring the plumber; we put chains on our tyres. The lino in our kitchen, despite its handsome look and its fittingness, is also transparent. We walk on it; we wipe the milk off it. The moment we do notice it, it’s probably time to change it.

These pieces of Ogden lino are finally—and rather obviously—not to be walked on or abused in any way, though once they were. If we cannot quite stop thinking about provenance and the ways the work samples periods and styles, there is still another prompt. For while these rubbery mosaics—tough enough to tap with a knuckle, though turning more brittle by the day—remind us of what’s past—the linos of our mother’s house, of our grandmother’s—they achieve art’s mission of freshening and renewing by freeing us to think of what’s to come. It’s this doubleness that gives the work its secret power of enchantment.

Both humble and high-spirited, Ogden’s arrangements, though at first glance appearing as stuck and still as figures in a carpet, carry a terrific promise of motion. The cut-outs, dropped into place once, seem capable of being moved into different positions. What the artist has done this time with the material manages somehow to be both certain and temporary, one version of events—and ‘events’ seems right since the works have the feel of folk tales. Once upon a time, in a beautiful garden, lived a bird . . . In this way, the scenes escape the deathliness of tableaux and instead tremble with possibility. The flowers do seem to blossom, the birds to lift. What at first glance appears basically a decorative art, a world of designed surface—and the word ‘pretty’ comes easily here—now begins to feel promisingly narrative, as if each piece of lino were a character in a partially submerged story: the pretty surface has depths.

If the elegance of the arrested scene—bird in a tree—is what first takes us in, these works repay further consideration by encouraging us to imagine the scene changing: the bird will soon be gone, the light will alter. ‘Storm Mexico’ is an image of upset; what the picture also conveys is the provisional nature of what we see—the storm will pass, and whether that means we get to go back into the beautiful garden or even into paradise (as one of the titles has it) or somewhere else entirely, is a matter for the unguessable future or the next instalment of the tale.

That beauty itself might be provisional and something we need to make and re-make in the face of vicissitude—that our lives are a little like lino even—is hardly a lesson of these extremely, excitingly, un-didactic works; nevertheless one feels less and less that these are nostalgic pieces and rather more that in their calmness and their gentle comedy they convey an involving urgency.

Damien Wilkins