At the heart of PJ Paterson’s practice lies an interest in failed utopias. Using the methods of photography and painting, the artist addresses the issues which have placed society in its current state of environmental and psychological duress. These works act almost like prophecies of possible things to come, warning that society is aware of its failings, yet currently inept at thwarting its own imminent downfall. Some themes that emerge within his works include overpopulation, overconsumption and blind worship of the rich and famous. The recurring visitation of these themes and concerns suggest these are pressing issues for Paterson and, through his art, he communicates a need for these questionable values to be re-evaluated.
Paterson’s immersive photography and moving image works depict urban wastelands; cars sprawled under an overcast sky, multitudes of bicycles, rundown automobiles, a disturbing horizon of uniform houses and perfectly groomed lawns that mirror some kind of Stepfordian dream. Through these digitally manipulated photographic compositions, Paterson comments on the insurmountable excess produced by human beings. Though presenting multitudes of derelict materials and commodities, these images are curiously devoid of the presence of actual human bodies. Paterson portrays a certain destiny where we no longer exist – humans are mortal after all. Problematically we have reached a paradoxical impasse, where the virtually invulnerable remnants and objects that often define our existence will far outlive us. These constructed landscapes, although amplified, are not completely inconceivable, with products that were created for convenience now taking hundreds of years to biodegrade (plastic drinking bottles, for example, have a lifespan of 450 years). Paterson repeatedly makes us aware of this shift in contemporary priorities, where our desires are practically insatiable and often dictated to us by advertising and the media.
The media and celebrity culture is explored through Paterson’s photorealist portraiture, where grids blur easily recognisable images of iconic celebrities. In the 2017 exhibition Panem et Circenses, the artist reproduced facial composites from widely distributed mugshots, making each celebrity’s charge the title of the work (Illegal Possession; Seduction and Adultery, etc). Much like those in a Western movie, the images are akin to ‘most wanted’ posters – blunt and face on, purely descriptive, lacking the glamour of a magazine photoshoot. It is here that Paterson confronts the viewer with the illusion of the celebrity; merely one component of a complex marketing machine. The celebrities in these images are human and flawed, though somewhat able to transcend their crimes through fame; alien to the world that most humans live in by the way they are portrayed in the media as rebellious and misunderstood. Paterson draws attention to this idolisation and fascination with famous people, yet he is dually drawn to the power dynamics at play between celebrity and fan. In referencing ‘60s rock era and punk artists, along with actors of classic films, Paterson kills his own darlings, implying that this kind of insidious advocacy was set in motion long before the pop stars of today’s generation exemplified these problems.
Paterson’s artistic process acts as an additional layer of interrogation. Through the labourious methodologies he employs within his painting and meticulously detailed digitally enhanced photography, Paterson flips painting and photography canons on their heads, challenging the notion of a ‘photorealistic’ finish. For the artist to depict what would normally be considered a photograph through painting and yet use composition and digital technology to essentially create a photograph, seems particularly deliberate. Paterson ultimately refuses to take the quick route, using his work to challenge and provoke thought about conventions. Very simply put, he directs viewers to slow down their thinking and investigate the images they are presented with, asking that people not take things at face value.
There are strong links between Paterson’s photography and portraiture works that speak to issues he perceives in today’s world. To Paterson, celebrity is a facade, a distraction, a selling point, as is the growing attachment between people and materials. In our modern world, status and the acquisition of wealth are seemingly more important than life itself. Politics and education reinforce skewed values and ideas from a young age, creating a culture that fosters obedience and prioritises class and social hierarchy. Paterson’s practice perfectly encapsulates our modern anxieties and fears, showing us exactly what these fears look like in his haunting and intricate artworks, with his visual realisations acting as deterrents, not determinants of what is in store for society.