Jasper Johns is one of my favourite visual artists. His work is diametrically opposed to Pollock, with his Freudian inspired exploration of the self and the great myths of humankind; or his fluid action painting. Nor is Johns similar to a Rothko or a Newman, with their quest to paint the ineffable, the spiritual or the absolute.
Johns is cool, calculating and careful. His work can be described as Pop, but I tend to look at his art in the same way I look at much of Duchamp’s work – as sustained examinations of the way meaning is constructed.
My favourite Jasper Johns works appeared in the mid to late 1950’s – the classic Flags, Targets, Numbers and Letters series.
The history of modern painting up until the 1950’s had been articulated by dominant theorists and historians, such as Greenberg, as the progressive ridding of the painted surface of everything not essential to the medium.
Representational elements in the painted work were therefore progressively jettisoned, according to Greenberg’s grand theory, because representational elements were believed to partake of the photographic and the sculptural. One saves painting from the overwhelming representational power of photography by clarifying paintings essence and progressively shedding the inessential. Painting them stands forth as what it ultimately is – the application of paint to a flat two – dimensional surface and therefore survives as a viable art form as a result. This process reached its ultimate end point in the 1960’s with Minimalism.
John’s classic works of the mid 1950’s can be read as a part of this art discourse. His works feature flat formal shapes. His targets when regarded simply as abstract forms are reminiscent, in some ways, of the work Frank Stella was making at the same time period. The goal is to drive space out of the painting and to remove any reference to narrative or representation. It is to make works which exist as literal objects, whose presence announce their own literal objecthood. Johns’ mid 1950’s works are quite successful at doing this – the flags, targets, numbers and letters are flat forms and they tend to announce their own nature as object to the trained eye.
However, the sophistication and importance of Johns’ work arises from the viewer centred process where the purely formal is over – powered and re – intended/meant as a result of drawing on culturally created codes. A target, letters or a flag are just shapes, but they are shapes which human beings have appropriated and invested with a more or less shared meaning based on a system of codes.
One can simultaneously read these Flags, Targets, Letters and Numbers in a sort of dialectical way. On the one hand, the shapes present as shapes without meaning, on the other hand, the shapes are injected with or become pregnant with meaning. A constant flickering back and forth, of the draining and filling of meaning takes place over and over. A synthesis can and usually does take place.
This art, in my view, is an example in specifically visual form of the functioning of a type of magic which I personally find attractive.
I am interested in the way in which people apply meaning to a blank form or object, and I am interested in the way in which pre-existing meaning can change over time or the way meaning can be historical.
In the ritual chamber I have my collection of objects. Each object I have was carefully acquired. Some I went in search of and others I came across in my day to day travels. All of them appealed to me as purely formal objects in their original location and they, in a sense, looked out of place there. They needed to be re-meant.
They have a meaning for me and for people in the place I first saw them. Taking these pieces and placing them in my ritual chamber is an investment of subjective meaning. They exist differently now.
The litany which I carefully write for a ritual is a culturally created code, but also a combination of meaningless shapes. It is ideally deeply me however.
My ability to impose a subjective vision on a portion of the objective seems to depend upon my ability to compel people to accept my articulation of a code - to impel people to regard pre-existing meaning or the empty formal in the fresh terms which I see.