Artist Descending a Typewriter: Nine Essays on Contemporary Art
Michael Paul Hogan
Shanti Arts Publishing ISBN 978-1-956056-87-7
If you asked Michael Paul Hogan how to write a book on contemporary art, he would probably reply, ‘On a typewriter – a 1928 Royal Portable to be precise.’ In ‘Artist Descending a Typewriter: Nine Essays on Contemporary Art’, armed with the same typewriter, he takes us on a remarkable journey through the lives and creative output of an array of exciting contemporary artists. Deftly sidestepping potential problems with definition, he asserts that contemporary artists are people you can drink a cup of coffee with, conveying the delight of each meeting with such precision and disarming candour, you can almost smell the coffee beans.
Sadly, however, having been invited to explore the startling range of Li Bin’s output, we realise, on reading the understated aching beauty of ‘Requiem for a Painter’, that a shared coffee is no longer an option; ‘a single star … to mark the passing of a dear friend’ must instead suffice. Friendship threads its way through this fascinating book as we walk, and sometimes stagger a little, from one rendezvous to another with Hogan as guide.
A criticism often levelled at contemporary art is that it relies too much on explanation. Hogan offers us exploration instead, providing opportunities to hear artists through transcriptions of interviews, shared memories and, of course, their work. Li Bin advises, ‘Just show people the paintings’ and this sumptuous edition does just that in all its eclectic glory.
‘Artist Descending a Typewriter’ is not merely a showcase for a series of art plates, although, of course, they play their part. Hogan introduces us to his friends, fellow artists and artwork in a variety of locations and settings, each time allowing the moment to breathe through finely-weighted prose that does not intrude but aids further exploration. It is up to us which path we take, the book’s title gently reminds us, as it tips the trilby to the multiple forms in Duchamp’s static yet moving ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. It is simply a question of how you see it and where you stand.
The book’s construction helps us to appreciate the many teasing interconnections and contradictions in contemporary art. The eponymous ‘Nine Essays’ are themselves made up of interviews, text boxes, reminiscences, artwork, to name but a few: in short we are at liberty to start where we choose. The overall effect is of canvases, both literal and metaphorical, bristling with possibilities. If Li-Bin, for example, recalls how paper, in his impoverished early childhood, was a gorgeous luxury, then Helen Ivory also considers how it can be ‘notoriously flighty’ while Paul Polydorou argues that it is something to be preserved in the face of digital advances. Rather than delineating the relationships between these responses, Hogan positions each subtly, thus enabling them to resonate of their own accord. This assembling of words, ideas and images is very much at the heart of Hogan’s work. He invites us to explore the space where words and images collide – or rather the spaces. Multiplicities of meanings and artefacts gather with intoxicating speed as Hogan strolls from one language to another with the easy charm of a flâneur. While these innovative artists willingly discuss their aesthetic processes with illuminating precision, they also admit ‘spesso io faccio senza troppo pensare’ (‘often I do it without thinking too much’). Their work is ‘of today and for tomorrow’ yet words and images have been ‘inseparable since the invention of paper’, reminding us that even the contemporary label is negotiable.
A tenet of good writing is to show, not tell – a challenging task at the best of times, more so when you are faced with the shifting sands of contemporary art. Although the book’s title promises nine essays, we soon discover that these are not essays in a linear sense (unless of course we choose to read them in that way). They are adroitly crafted assemblages that respond to and complement the artwork and in so doing become an extension of it – a remarkable feat.
‘Artist Descending a Typewriter’ is neither textbook nor treatise; it moves far beyond both. It effortlessly strolls with us along the avenues, boulevards and alleyways of creativity in a way that is ultimately liberating so that by the end of our journey we marvel, not only at what we have seen, but also at the fresh understanding we now possess. If the road to an appreciation of contemporary art is littered with contradictions, Michael Paul Hogan gathers up each one and shows us how they shine.
Clare Morris © 2023.