John Latham: Spray Paintings

Lisson Gallery, 1 April – 7 May 2016

John Latham, Two Noit. One Second Drawing, 1970-71. Image courtesy the John Latham Foundation and Lisson Gallery, photo by Ken Adlard.

John Latham, Two Noit. One Second Drawing, 1970-71. Image courtesy the John Latham Foundation and Lisson Gallery, photo by Ken Adlard.

Halloween, 1954: an astronomer and animal ethnologist couple, with an interest in the paranormal, invite artist John Latham to create a mural for a party in their Hampshire home. In response, Latham gets a spray gun from an ironmonger and spurts their white wall (or, in some accounts, their ceiling) with black paint. The resulting burst of dots sets off a series of associations for the artist: a sculpture, performance, drawing and painting all at once, that looks like an inverse night sky. The spray gun becomes a regular feature in his work, but also a tool to think through his growing theory that physics has got it all wrong: the basic unit of the universe isn’t the particle, but a minimal, time-based something, anything, happening – what he later called a ‘least event’. Latham’s widespread influence hasn’t been so much the result of his early splotchy part-figurative paintings, or his later muddy, messy assemblages and destructive performances, but is more due to his persistent promotion of the artist as a sort of eccentric natural philosopher. Continue reading

Bea McMahon

Bea McMahon, Cats, 2011, HD video

The development of quantum mechanics had reached an intriguing point in 1935 when, to illustrate certain paradoxical tendencies in its theories, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment. Imagine a cat in a sealed, opaque container; an event that had a 50/50 chance of occurring would then, if it did occur, trigger the release of a poison that would kill the cat. His point was that given quantum theory’s development as a way of calculating probabilities of atomic events, it was not possible to verify whether an event had occurred or not. His proposition would, theoretically lead to the patently absurd conclusion that the cat was simultaneously both alive and dead.

Schrödinger’s set-up was playing at the back of Bea McMahon’s mind when she was making her short video Cats, 2011, during her residency at John Latham’s Flat Time House. But the cats in her video restlessly prance back and forth, mewing and twitching their tails, intercut with images of the poised, grandiose statues of lions sitting outside Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, and, perhaps oddly, shots of the brain-like shape of walnuts. The camera capturing the two cats is on floor level, and it is their feline perspective and rhythm we attune to as their paws tap on the black wood-panelled floor. One of the cats makes an unusual rhythm, with a pronounced, deeper step, an accentuated ka-thump, ka-thump – eventually we see it has a tumorous growth on one foot. In these two contrasting rhythms, McMahon found a ‘matrix-like structure’, comparing it to the Syllabic poets and – in the publication accompanying her show at FTH – captured the cats’ beats in medieval musical notation, turning the lighthearted film into a suggestive immersion in non-human rhythms. Continue reading