The Voxelated Galaxy of Oona Grimes

Cherry Smyth


‘as clocks run races over
the planet and hearts are filled with
stone after stone that will
never fall as machines devise
other machines as if it were
possible to conceal that the future
conceals nothing…’ (1)

There is a distinct emotional and technical precision to all of Oona Grimes’ work that gives it its idiosyncratic and fascinating lure. You’re lured inspite of yourself, inspite of not knowing what the shady characters and disjointed hieroglyphics represent, nor exactly how the jagged lines have been manufactured without any digital input whatsoever. Surely to create trust in a distrustful world is some of what Grimes succeeds in doing. Her logic in an illogical universe is predicated on research into, among other things, ancient linguistic signs and icons, Japanese woodcuts, the comic semantic and ontological adventures of writers like Flann O’Brien and Lewis Carroll, fractal geometry and sci-fi.

How meaning and its dissolution are carried through symbols drives Grimes’ intriguing practice. The bleeding edges of her spray-painted figures and forms manipulate depth, weight and movement in an eerily depthless, weightless and still galaxy of blackness. The tools she uses feed into how she works: consider the sharp jerkiness of the stencil knife; the control and randomness inherent to spray-paint; and the given limits of often lurid colour. Then consider the set components of the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of this new series and the aleatory parts within that as the artist’s mother’s memory disintegrates and speech leaves her, in a sense, deserting them both. Beyond the said and the unsayable, Grimes’ latest work intuits a reconceptualisation of her role, their bond and its despair.

Whereas in previous series, there was a sinister hilarity to Grimes’ scenarios, a ‘them and us’ quality, in this new work, a claustrophobic and isolating ’inside us’ dimension emerges. The irresolvable figures once clung to the familiar: a piece of toast, a red-nosed clown. The ventriloquist’s dummy laughed as he stabbed you in the back; her blunt knife cut nonetheless, but an atmosphere of resilience rose above the helplessness. What did atomic-waste face want with the ominous jellyfish? Would the grenade go off in the teeth of the grinning Vaudevillian mouth? Now tanglehead has nothing to say to brickface. Characters once locked in the personalities of hierarchical position must change as the power of speech is lost. ‘What is the word?’ 2013, for instance, seems to notate the reality of a disintegrating brain, the cracking building blocks, the deformed jigsaw. A figure whose lips seem sewn with a rough cross-hatch evinces the trapped aphasic. As Grimes says, ‘She’s floating off and I don’t know where she is now.’

In recent work, the characters are more subdued, more mechanized and failing. In ‘Supreme Pancake’, 2014, the human robot’s arms are stuck in a meaningless reaching out to a fragmentary robot dog as if they are each relegated to an inter-species’ communication void. ‘Uncommonness is the norm,’ says Grimes. Potato heads in ‘foliaduh’, 2014, are sad rather than menacing, words are set adrift like yellow balls with no bounce.

Although not directly informed by the digital world, Grimes’s work makes me think of the latest breakthrough in digital design – it’s almost as though she has reached a similar visual language through analogue means. ‘Finite element analysis’ is a form of design in which discrete fragments can be made as tiny as necessary and are displayed in an apparently disjointed and fragmentary state. The resulting designs are edgy, agile and multi-angled, unlike the smooth, curvilinear design of early computation. According to Mario Carpo, ‘the volumetric units of design and calculation are called voxels, so the style resulting from this mode of composition is called voxelisation. It is a way of notating reality without having to convert it into simplified and scalable mathematical notations or laws.’ (2)

Isn’t this what Grimes is seeking – a way to notate a reality that can’t be determined or resolved through narrative or catharsis? The interrelation between parent and child is scattered, full of holes, in a silent, chaotic alienation. There may be moments of light, of recognition, of language and love doing what they should and Grimes’ work will catch their glimpses.

(1) from alphabet, part 14, Inger Christensen (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2000) Mario Carpo,
(2) ‘Breaking the Curve’, Artforum, February, 2014, p.173