In a tomb somewhere in Egypt, there is an image of several gods bending, like limbo dancers, so far backwards that their penises point in the air. From each penis there shoots a little arc of semen, notated as dots, which fall into the mouth of the god behind, who shoots it out of his own penis into the mouth of the god behind him, and so on and so forth, down the line. This is not about some wild sexual rite but the communication of power and life-force down the generations. So the semen is not really semen, but a symbolic substance, a metaphor; so much so, indeed, that in one of the many Egyptian creation myths a god actually masturbates the universe into existence.
There are little dots of relationship passing between the characters in these images by Oona Grimes. But this isn’t really spunk either, rather it is an indication of relationship, or communication, or of intent. The point is that the things in Oona’s pictures know each other, they are in relationship to one another, be it a relationship of harmony or one of struggle. The important point is that there is regard.
One doesn’t really find this graphic visualization of relationship and force much in Western art. One occasionally sees it in Catholic images of St Francis where the forces creating his stigmata zip, visualized as painted lines of gold, like lasers, down from the heavens. But there is not much else until certain Cubists and then a bit later Francis Bacon, with his arrows indicating direction of motion and force. There is something of the two-dimensional and of the diagram about such graphic language, and it would be a simple task to find many examples in Western scientific illustration. But in Fine or High Western art, until recent times, at least, images had mostly leapt off the surface into the realm of time and space, into the realm of the eye and dimension and away from the diagram and the mind.
Apart from this two-dimensional aspect, there is also something of the written about such diagram-like Egyptian images, and indeed it is hard to distinguish between the written and the pictured in that ancient culture. This is the tradition to which Oona Grimes belongs. The relationship between the pictured objects or characters in her work belongs in the picture-writing form. In some ways she is a maker of rebuses or hieroglyphs. She is ‘saying’ things in the full sense of the word. But as we will see this does not mean that the sayer is the same sayer who you would talk to if you talked with Oona, or the same kind of conscious sayer, who is writing this essay at this moment in time.
So there is relationship. And clearly, to have relationship, one needs more than one object. In Western art right up to modern times, there is certainly no shortage of things and characters, and relationships between them. There is a density of signs that is the necessary precondition for language. However, since the beginning of Romanticism and that continuation of Romanticism, which we call Modernism, there has been a tendency for works to become much more singular, or what one might call ‘monolithic’ in the visual arts. This has continued right into present, so-called Postmodern times, so that one can think of such iconic works as Hirst’s shark or Whiteread’s House or Marc Quinn’s blood Head, all of which are monoliths; singular objects, like words rather than sentences. Of course, our culture has also valued the occasional artist who bucks this trend and continues in the pre-Romantic-Modern vein and these artists have been very considerable figures indeed; artists such as Matthew Barney, Philip Guston, Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp. These artist have fully developed languages. But the essential thing to grasp is that they are exceptions to the general trend.
Oona Grimes belongs in this language type. She is one of the exceptions. In such artists the symbolic cosmos of signs they create is multiple, not unitary. In this they are much more like the pre-modern artists who existed within and illustrated from the great mythological religious cycles of Christianity. Michelangelo will serve as prime example and the head of such a group, and as I say such artists drew on a pre-existing cosmos of religious meaning. But, the more recent artists, Barney and the others, in their invention of their own mythology are more like Blake, who begins the whole project of creating one’s own symbolic system. Again Oona Grimes fits well within this tradition in the sense that she has created her own system, created the ‘words’ of her own language. But to get the full contrast between these two groups one has to resort to caricature somewhat, for which I beg the reader’s indulgence. So, for example, an artist like Hirst builds his symbolic lexicon slowly, in bodies of monolithic works that span decades, if not a lifetime, and only at the end of his career will he have assembled the alphabet of his symbolic objects or ’words’. (Actually one saw the beginnings of his linking it all together into a sentence at the Wallace Collection, in his ‘Rembrandty’ paintings, a couple of years ago, but these were ridiculed, so much so, perhaps, that the late painted works were left entirely out of his recent Tate retrospective). In contrast to this slow building of a lexicon over a lifetime, someone like Barney or Duchamp wields his entire lexicon in each work (or, at least in Duchamp’s case, in the major pieces like the Large Glass and Etant Donnes). For this simultaneous use of the lexicon to be true of the Hirst type artist – and in making this point one again has to resort to caricature – he would have to have, within a single image, a skeleton riding a shark, dangling before it, carrot-like, either a butterfly or a diamond, swimming through a tank containing Charles Saatchi’s office, onwards and upwards, as they approach their apotheosis in the modern apothecary’s shop with its packages of bliss. That is a sentence. The units are only words.
Oona Grimes speaks in sentences, paragraphs and perhaps even entire chapters. In this she is ‘of’ the Blake, Duchamp, Beuys, Guston, Barney party and not ‘of’ the party of Hirst and the taste for the mono-sign that dominated our preferences nationally during the YBA era that she has worked within. This great contrast corresponds to the arcane notion of the fool and the magus. In a mythical medieval court, the monarch is advised by both these characters. The one offers short, humourous, ego-puncturing, ironic comments, the other utters a serious and lengthier discourse, at once directed and organized. Both sources of counsel are valued. Despite our own valuation of artists such as Barney, we have tended to over-value the Fool. The Hirst model is mostly ‘fool’, and is no accident perhaps that the pithy, humourous and ironic mono-sign has found favour with the greatest collector of our times – an ad man. Like, perhaps, seeks like.
But there is a twist to this tale, for the fool and the magus have an interesting history. Within the psyche, we may be seen to contain both. The magus is all Enlightenment thinking; rational, neo-cortical front-brain thinking. The fool all Romantic, unconscious, spontaneous processes. Since the onset of Romantic-modernism, the arts have taken on the role as corrective voice to the overly ego-illuminated Western psyche. This is what I meant when I tried to suggest that the ‘saying’ of Oona’s work has a different source than the saying we should expect to encounter if we talked with her in person. For the sayer of much of this magus work is not the Enlightenment forebrain, but the unconscious ‘fool’. What is interesting is that some artists, noticibly artists like Philip Guston, have become hybrids – speaking, in ‘magus’-like, long paragraphs, with symbolic objects in a fully articulated and extensive language of signs, but producing this language from a source within the unconscious. This is a form of mental androgyny. Quite naturally such artists are often shy about using the analytical mind to talk about the content of the work. This nervousness, as I understand it, stems from the fact that what can happen when one has developed or produced a full lexicon of signs, is that one tends to think in that language. And it really is a form of thinking, but it is one in which the conscious mind is only an onlooker, always trailing behind, having to make sense, to justify, to rationalize conceptual events that have already taken place and are outside of its comfort zone, within a realm of what it can only dimly intuit as some other order.
This is not unlike the situation when the rational mind is asleep and the unconscious thinks in dream images. Indeed I suggest that treating these works as one would a series of dreams is a fruitful way to encounter them. In the first place the basic rule, just as one would apply in beginning to think about a dream, is to regard each character as an internal character, much in the way that Blake or Jung would do. The relationship between the strange disembodied judge (who Oona calls “Natural Puff”) who has become his own wig – signified by the multiple rolls of curls, and the other characters, one of whom she describes as a vessel who takes the role of his maker, offer a hint of the kind of internal struggles some of these works speak of. Oona hints that she is involved in the shifting power relationships between a child and parent as the parent ages and sickens. But as with Blake such external events mirror internal ones, and there is a sense in which the internalized parent, the authority of the judge, is on the wane and a new authority of the self emerges fitfully and nervously onto the stage, still caring, still loving the declining orb, but amused and energised by its new role.
To the ‘normal’ linguistic centres this language from the other order might seem like a loss of language altogether, so alien is it to the neo-cortex inhabiting language area. And despite more personal, family encounters, this might account partly for her interest in Alzheimers and neurological case studies of damage to various brain areas which affect language. But the two things can live together, this is a fertile not an infertile hybrid, and the communications produced in this other language are valid reports of many internal truths, figured, like recurring dreams, over and over again, and piggyback riding in comic vehicles that delight in their appropriate inappropriateness.