That art and communication are synonymous is a convenient assumption in an art world that requires a contextualizable product, a still target for valuation. Inarticulacy has consequently become a condition of resistance, even if it proves to be merely token; the implied paradox is usually sidestepped and, with it, the potential criticality. Michael Dean’s sculptural/textual installations arrange signs for the failure of communication, the unachieved residue of spoken language, theatrical gesture and sculptural form – all occasions for the transmission of sense or image to a viewer. Starkly materialistic and formalistic concrete sculptures, offering up their scored and scratched planes like mute screens, are combined with self-produced books in which theatrical dialogues are reduced to shreds and shards of fragmented language. Contextualize the style of this presentation, and one is forced back to the art and literature that developed, in the latter half of the 20th century, out of a crisis in the manifestation of the artist’s self in language and form: phenomenological Minimalist sculpture; concrete poetry, such as the typewritten drawings/scripts of Henri Chopin; the spare, late prose of Samuel Beckett; and, more recently, deconstructive American ‘Language’ poetry, such as that of Susan Howe or Michael Palmer.
Dean, however, assumes the postures associated with this schism between subjectivity and language, but without a sense of the crisis which generated it. The London-based artist capitalizes on the resemblances between an elegant formal spareness and the depletion of an utterance disabused of its pretentions to convey the self from which it issues. His installation at Herald St (‘Hah Ahahahahaha ha Hahaha’, 2013) consisted of a series of sculptural vignettes constructed out of raw MDF. Each formed a minimal table and chair set, foiled by vertical and horizontal MDF planes suggesting a rudimentary stage setting. Balanced precariously on the furniture, organic-looking concrete sculptures took the role of the self or body that might occupy these putative interiors. Some had arm/wing forms fanning out from their sides. Smaller concrete sculptures, resembling enlarged tongues, drooped off the MDF walls or the edge of a tabletop, as though about to ooze further along the surfaces, like slugs. Open on the tables, backless books contained the printed letters ‘ha’, repeated ad infinitum, in the indented and paragraphed form of a prose narrative, as though the tongues had been reduced to inarticulate laughter, the linguistic trace of a laugh, drained of its sound and humour.
The rough patina of Dean’s sculptures derives from allowing the idiosyncrasies of casting concrete to remain visible. They tend to be basic, geometric forms that fan out into protruding and receding facets. Here, the modelling was more involved than before, the facets decorated with additional lumps of concrete. The effect was to push the oblique figurative connotations of his freestanding forms into a more blatant, cartoonish direction. The sculptures’ standard anthracite-grey colouring was also diversified, in a few of the pieces, with the use of a kitschy flesh-pink concrete. Offset by the cool MDF planes of the furniture, these biomorphic, asymmetrical objects claimed the pathos of an awkward vulnerability. But the contrast between flat industrial foils and the lumpen organic grotesquery ranged against it was too diametrically poised for that pathos to be more than a studied generalization.
By exploiting these polarities, the installation pivoted rhetorically between signs for subjectivity and its absence. Each of the micro-scenarios packed into the gallery was a locus for the missing, intimated figure. In the first-person prose narratives of Beckett’s later work, the stream of language is all there is to keep subjectivity afloat. It is both preserver and progenitor of the self. If its thread breaks – as it must, even in the silence between words – the self is threatened with dissolution. There is both terror and humour in this panic-stricken suspension of identity. Dean’s sculptures might have been intended as an equivalent to this disembodied voice, striving to attain the quiddity of selfhood against their minimalistic backdrops. Their squirming, vaunting postures, soundlessly soundtracked by a mental patter of ‘ha’s, signified Dean’s attempt to humanize the immaculate stasis of his previous formalism. But he never allows absurdity to structurally threaten style, or a composed artistic persona to devolve into a threatened self. Rather than a distillation of hysterical guffawing, the stream of ‘h’s and ‘a’s coalesced into the textual equivalent of a monochrome, leaving the books they filled as commodifiable art objects – as much signs for the form of the deconstructive prose work as the sheets of MDF are signs for accommodating décor, and the concrete excrescences for beleaguered subjectivity.