For the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, writing in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1791), the big question about animals was not 'can they reason?' or 'can they talk?' but 'can they suffer?' Looking at Jon Pylypchuk's first solo show in London, the answer would seem to be yes, grievously so. In his sculptures, paintings and collages various beasts (fabricated from socks, T-shirts and tufts of fun fur) suffer various set-backs, among them punched bellies, all-too-thorough burglaries and the pride-puncturing indignity of being pissed on. Most of all, they suffer from mange. Given their many misfortunes, it is only fair that Pylypchuk spares them the pains of erectile dysfunction. In the sculpture Erections Pointing at Stars and Angels (all works 2004), from which the show took its title, three cats (one standing upright, the other two splayed on the floor) boasted three proud, stiff pricks, each tipped with a blue glans, like a freshly chalked pool cue.
Impotence doesn't trouble male cats in the way it troubles male humans (for whom hard-ons, as Martin Amis has written, are sometimes 'very difficult. They're not at all easy. That's why they're called hard-ons'). This, I guess, is because they have no interior monologue, run no risk of tangling themselves up in moral or emotional twine. And yet for all the atavism of their species, the felines in Pylypchuk's sculpture appear to have, if not souls, then at least the capacity for spiritual experience. Above them float two spindly-limbed angels, one of whom dribbles spit into a can held by the upstanding cat, providing a salve for whatever wounds lie beneath the bandages swaddling its parsimoniously furred arm. Looking at the angels' expressions (of the type that play across the faces of career social workers or the deputy heads of failing inner-city schools), caring for their charges is a tough business. Perhaps they drew the short straw when the jobs were last divvied up in heaven or were overlooked for promotion in favour of two flashy, fast-tracked seraphim, and were lumped with the guardianship of these moggies, the flea-bitten children of a lesser god. Whatever its back-story, Erections Pointing at Stars and Angels is, like the TV series Steptoe and Son (1962-74), a comedy of mutual dependence. Cats and angels, angels and cats: in Pylypchuk's universe they are bound to one another by a need that neither party quite comprehends.
Pylypchuk presented another angel in the collage on paper One Forced Attempted at Caring, swooping to succour a black smudge of a creature with a gobbet of glue issuing from its mouth. It wasn't clear what kind of comfort was being offered here - the amelioration of metaphysical uncertainty? a little caring in a careless world? - but in any case it's rejected: the creature, in one of Pylypchuk's trademark speech balloons, informs the angel that it 'sucks to be you'. Such brush-offs recur throughout the show's collaged works, from the furry baby who answers his father's request 'pants on, fly straight' with the words 'fuck the pants patrol!' to a dirty-feathered father bird that, when confronted with his new-born offspring, squawks 'no, no, not mine'. This is funny, cruel stuff, made all the crueller by the fact that Pylypchuk's critters - with their make-do-and-mend physiologies, forever on the brink of falling apart - so clearly can't afford not to help each other out. If there's truth here, it's the hard, very human truth that individuals, even in the most invidious of shared circumstances, will still sometimes betray each other. Even among the inmates of Auschwitz, after all, there were crooks and cuckolds.
Seen in isolation, Pylypchuk's work seems to be about difference (between parents and children, between partners, between this desire and that) and the difficulties it fosters, but taken as a whole they point, perhaps paradoxically, to something communal. In his treatise Laughter (1900) Henri Bergson observes that 'laughter needs an echo. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.' Chuckling at Pylypchuk's sorry, hilarious creatures (which are, of course, avatars of our own sorry, hilarious selves) embroils us in a connectedness that, far from being abstract, we feel in the creasing of our lips or in the wobbling throb of a belly laugh. Few artists are capable of eliciting such a response. Fewer still make suffering so much fun.