BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 06 MAY 03
Featured in
Issue 75

Jonathan Monk

Arnolfini, Bristol/Lisson Gallery, London, UK

BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 06 MAY 03

Poor Gene Simmons. The legendarily priapic bassist of US rock group Kiss once rode high in the personal pantheon of Jonathan Monk, who in 1992 went so far as to exhibit a photograph of himself wearing Simmons-esque greasepaint. But in these two exhibitions he was nowhere to be seen, replaced in the intervening years by a hipper class of hero and a less transparent approach to homage. Monk's professed interest in the Rubik's cube was as embarrassing as things got. High School Boogie Woogie (2001) - one of 20-odd pieces at the Arnolfini in a generous but airy selection of work from the past five years - was a looped 16mm animation in which the twistable terror of 1980s playgrounds was repeatedly scrambled and solved, allowing the artist to achieve in seconds something that, according to his catalogue notes, was beyond him in real life. Beside it was the formally similar 16mm projection Sol LeWitt 100 Cubes Cantz (2000), which animated 100 Cubes, LeWitt's 1996 book of varicoloured gouaches. Sprinting through cubic variations, this reminded us that it's a short step from frustrated schoolyard nerd to Conceptual art-history geek - so long as we overlook the Heavy Metal years, of course.

The juxtaposition was paradigmatic, since Monk's output now invariably interlaces his own life and that of systems-based Conceptual art in a manner that structures the former while simultaneously fracturing the purity of the latter. Therein lies the subtlety of works such as the Arnolfini's grid of framed photographs Self-Portrait # 6 (10 Ý 15 Glossy) (2003), for which Monk sent one negative to be developed at 25 different high-street photo labs, with the resulting prints showing his skin tone in shades ranging from tangerine to grey. While corrupted Conceptualism is de rigueur, he appears to speak not for an entire culture that can no longer believe in 1960s ideals, but only - and with apparent therapeutic intent - for his own decentred self.

As such, a literalist might infer self-portraiture from the numerous works he has made that involve trying to stick a dot exactly in the middle of a piece of paper. For Arnolfini's Searching for the Centre of a Sheet of Paper (White on Black/Black on White) (2003) he allowed two volunteers to do the work, one of them sticking a white dot on a black sheet, the other a black dot on white. Monk animated their various attempts and projected them on to either side of a suspended sheet of A4 paper; the result was a pair of dots dancing a frantic pas de deux on a shimmering grey field. Jostling with this work's autobiographical suggestion, however, was its structural intermingling of order and chance.

In his A Year with Swollen Appendices (1996) Brian Eno speculated that perfect music requires both regular rhythms and chord changes because the human organism wishes equally for stability and change. Although pieces such as The Height of 23 Children and 8 Adults on 6 March 2003 (2003) - a rising stack of horizontal blue chalk lines on a wall - threatened to tip into self-parody, this mix is characteristic of Monk's works and may be the key to their pleasurable effect.

Yet the crucial element is probably their guiltless admission of something that still feels oddly verboten - the fact that admiring, without apparent irony, the work of other artists and the seemingly less problematic art of other eras is natural, and Modernist autonomy is not. Among the first works one encountered in Monk's Lisson show was Lost Days (2002), based on Gilbert and George's 1971 photographic flip-book The Lost Day, which was originally made from a film. Monk reversed the process, animating the book frame by frame and looping it to show George endlessly inhaling and exhaling a cloudlet of cigarette smoke. The effect of this scratchy, sepia-toned loop was unashamedly nostalgic; it suggested the action of one who, endlessly flipping the book's pages backwards and forwards, keeps his heroes in perpetual motion. Monk seems aware of when his National Health spectacles are steaming up, though. The Lisson show returned again to LeWitt; Today is Just a Copy of Yesterday (Lisson/LeWitt) (2003) was a slide projection using one image - a photograph of an assistant installing a wall-work by LeWitt at Lisson in 1972. Each day, however, the slide was replaced by a dupe made from it, ensuring a progressive degradation of image quality. On my first visit the black and white shot was crisp and clear; three weeks later its whites had taken on a deep sapphire cast and much of the action was wreathed in blackness, an image not of hard Conceptualism but of how we may fondly remember it.

Monk ventures farthest from his heroes (allowing for a pinch of Lawrence Weiner) in his long-running series of 'Meeting' wall texts, which invite viewers to a rendezvous at a specified future time and place. From the Lisson: The Lion Enclosure London Zoo Regent's Park London 12th May 2014 lunchtime (2003). From the Arnolfini: 'Free Lane Leicester England August 19th 2006 noon' (2003). Pretty specific, and yet the artist may not turn up. The future as well as the past is open to reworking; this system is open to change. And that's the surprising twist when Monk's art is seen in bulk - his own system apparently isn't open to change, but is revealed as being based on precise counter-balances of personal and impersonal, ordered and chaotic. Underneath all the formal inventiveness and witty deployment of selfhood, a practice lurks that is increasingly as steely, centred and professional as those of the Systems art masters he reveres. Gene Simmons, you're history.

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.