Modernity has been out of favour since the late 60s when capitalism and consumerism and its omnivorous feeding habits began to be questioned by artists, philosophers and commentators alike.
Perhaps the abiding symbol of that shift in thinking can be detected in architecture where Modernist forms came to signify all that was wrong and life-denying about the Modern period. Born of a utopian impulse, utility and functionalism with its reductionist aesthetic – repetition, uniformity and monumentality – was something that later generations experienced as seriously flawed.
The dream failed spectacularly and artist PJ Paterson in his latest series of photographic works explores the on-going permutations from that fallout as it touches us today, providing a satirical critique of the heroic machine age.
All that is questionable about the Modernist dream is summed up in the artist’s digitally manipulated images where standardisation, repetition, domination and totalitarian uniformity get mocked both in title and treatment in his 2011 series, Glory.
Two images in particular ham up the heroic: Got Carter and Milton Friedman Highway. They echo both the Third Reich (think Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) and Hollywood musicals (Busby Berkeley) from the 1930s. The Friedman work parodies the fantasy of the ‘ideal’ world where greed is good and the market is God while Got Carter plays with Modernist follies by depicting women lined up in rigid military formation against a backdrop of a half dismantled 1960s tower block. The sepia colour of each image plays with the nostalgic irony of a brave new world that came unstuck.
The 2012 series, Symmetry, Repetition and Noise, presents antithetical images to the dream of progress, each one capturing the dystopian outcome of Modernist overreach. In digitally collaged photographs, Paterson confronts a capitalist economy that has at its heart a consumerist compulsion founded upon built-in obsolescence. The artist creates some of the most arresting and audacious imagery with collaged material, using clever twists and juxtapositions that are germane to the subject. With a simple shift of perspective, a change of one or two elements, he achieves enough distance and shift of angle to provide disturbing disclosure.
Place and proportion is Paterson’s trope. One of the most powerful images using this technique comes from a work entitled The Valley. The digitally manipulated photograph delivers a startling apocalyptic vision that pictures a concourse of discarded wrecked cars disgorged into some remote and mist-shrouded ravine gushing down toward the viewer in a cascading morass of rusting metal. Images like these have the power and potential to become iconic posters for political cause.
The artist’s tilt at Modernity continues in his latest series. Using an analogue method of ‘painting’, he works with the face of the sixties fashion model Twiggy, in order to explore notions of visual illusion, disposability and appropriation.
Paterson is an astute observer of the contemporary condition, an artist with political conscience, creating images that tease, disturb and disrupt the viewer’s expectations by turn, while employing allusions that function with meticulous craft and sly ingenuity.