The categorical denial of Simon Patterson
If it’s often the designer’s job to communicate a sense of an ordered world, then it’s surely the artist’s job to disrupt that order and expose its limitations. Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Hamilton toyed with comic books and familiar brand symbols, giving these mass-produced images the painter’s touch. For Simon Patterson—whose very email address is an anagram of his name—it is the message that is altered while the medium remains intact. One of his most ambitious works, and certainly his best loved, is The Great Bear, a comprehensive reworking of Harry Beck’s famous map of the London Underground.
Patterson gave each line a theme (footballers, explorers, saints etc.) and each station the name of somebody in the appropriate category. The fun begins where lines intersect, or there is a run of names, such as Fondas and Hustons instead of Finchleys and Claphams (film actors are a recurrent motif for an artist entranced by Hollywood kitsch). Other pieces make gentle mockery of airline route maps and other bizarrely ritualized forms of information display.
The work strikes a popular chord, for while we need our taxonomies, something in us continues to acknowledge the ultimate futility of categorizing things that were never created in categories. It is Patterson’s witty exploration of this conflict that gained him nomination for the Turner Prize in 1996.
Patterson’s earliest works were single names of celebrities or political leaders set in American Typewriter on white fields. At first, he thought he could similarly direct the thoughts evoked by more complex work such as the tube map. ‘I wanted to control the meanings and associations, so that it would be completely clear what my intention was,’ he explains. ‘But somewhere along the way, I forgot what that was, and I realized that non-sequiturs are a way in for people.’
Many of the diagrams of the way the world is organized that Patterson takes as his raw material are what one is taught at school—the periodic table of the elements, electrical circuit diagrams, family trees of the English kings and queens have all featured in his work. What was he thinking as his teachers tried to brainwash his class into accepting these mere graphical representations as truth? ‘The things that fascinated me about the periodic table were the grid and the way it was taught by rote. It was convenient to teach it that way, but I could never remember it.’ So Patterson produced a long series of variations in which the chemical symbol for each element kicks off a false association. Cr is not chromium but Julie Christie, Be is not beryllium but Ingmar Bergman, but then even this quasi-system is sabotaged: Ag, the symbol for silver, is not Jenny Agutter, say, or even Agatha Christie, but of course Phil Silvers.
The 36-year-old Patterson is a bit of a victim of a cataloguing error himself, being pigeonholed as one of the ‘Young British Artists’. But although he was in the ‘Freeze’ show and studied at Goldsmiths with Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, he does not share their urge to shock. ‘It’s not my nature to work in that way. The hook that grabs a viewer with in art might be something incredibly shocking. But it might be that you tickle them with a feather or creep up and grab them from behind.’
Patterson’s confusion of sign systems produces many reactions. The Great Bear makes us smile, and draws us in, seeking connections. A work such as 1990’s The Last Supper arranged according to the Flat Back Four Formation (Jesus Christ in Goal), on the other hand, is pure Monty Python. Yet it is also one of Patterson’s most clearly art-referenced works, its list of names in simple black on white alluding to the Renaissance artists’ puzzle over how to squeeze Jesus Christ and his disciples around a table and still pose them for the artist. The strongest work punctures pomposity. In General Assembly of 1994 a giant Claes Oldenburg-style typewriter keyboard keys resembles tiered seating, with some seats labelled for United Nations dignitaries but others satirically given to places in Gulliver's Travels.
The truth of the medium is the essential counterpoint to the calculated falsehood of the message. This means that the quality of execution must match that of its mass-production model, whether it’s print or fabrication of objects. This is an area where other YBAs slip up. But Patterson avoids art fabricators and goes direct to the real-world makers of what he wants.
The procedure brings a collaboration which Patterson welcomes. His brother is a painter, but for Simon, ‘I can’t handle the solitary art’. Learning from specialists is part of the fun. The catalogues of saints or scientists that appear so definitive are surprisingly arbitrary; it is the details of the process for which Patterson reserves his amiable obsessiveness.
Now Patterson is developing the collaborative nature of his work by adding an element of performance. The degree of accident always important in the printed pieces is made more apparent. A kite printed with the name of Yuri Gagarin is photographed poignantly snagged in trees. A series of works called Landskip involves letting off flares of coloured smoke in the Arcadian grounds of an English country house that was once used to test ordnance.
And the category errors continue. In Color Match, a 1997 sound work, the BBC’s football results announcer reads the names of the teams but pairs them with Pantone colour code numbers. A fine recent work, Escape Routine, is that rare thing, a funny art video. In it, airline flight attendants appear to demonstrate the usual safety routine. There’s the soothing voiceover, the pressed uniforms, the badly drawn diagrams. But in fact what one is hearing are Houdini’s instructions for various acts of escapology. As the demonstration progresses, a stewardess is calmly chained to her chair, a whip appears, ankle cuffs are put on, somebody catches a bullet fired from a gun—and through it all the voice never wavers. The video mocks the ritualized pretence of the airplane drill with its demand for collusion between passengers and crew that ‘in the event of landing on water’ such and such a smooth procedure will be followed. Like many of Patterson’s works, it makes us aware of the rules we impose on ourselves to make society function. Interestingly, though, Patterson has no difficulty getting these anonymous authority figures to collude in his minor acts of subversion.
Now Patterson plans to be part of the action. In a kind of hysterical extension of earlier aural work, he plans to read people’s famous last words while sitting in the co-driver’s seat of a rally car as it is driven round the course. Patterson himself does not drive, and his terrified voice as it bellows over the engine noise into the mike should produce quite a frisson. It comes as no surprise to learn that the artist would like to make a film, although he does not necessarily see himself as an actor, writer or even the director. ‘The most difficult thing is working out how much control to give away,’ he says.