in Features | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

Once in a Lifetime

In his paintings, sculptures and installations, Michael Fullerton explores the vagaries of representation

in Features | 01 NOV 07

When I was six or seven, I read a series of books set in an American high school, in which the playground bully would draw a snake on his upper arm with a Magic Marker. The faux tattoo would ripple, as though the animal had been conjured to life by the claim of the brand name. Some time later I found out that American Magic Markers were the same lowly indelible pens we had in England – the disappointment I experienced upon realizing that my judgement had been so easily skewed was great. In 2005, at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, Scottish artist Michael Fullerton hung several steel rods from the ceiling of the gallery, each coated in a new pigment known as ‘Magic Purple’, which its manufacturer claimed would change colour in different lights. Reports differ as to whether or not this worked: Fullerton’s practice is preoccupied with such formulations of seductiveness, in which different claims on truth radically refigure the way in which certain knowledge is acquired.

A number of the portraits that constitute the main body of Fullerton’s practice are of representatives from institutions that gather evidence, make judgements or disperse popular opinion. These players in the circulation of information range from Lady Cosgrove (the first woman to be appointed to the role of judge in Scotland’s Supreme Court) through BBC broadcasters to underhand operatives such as David Milligan, a Glaswegian who spied on artists suspected of benefit fraud. Yet Fullerton has also painted the victims of such judgements, whether imprisoned wrongfully (the alleged Birmingham Six bomber Paddy Joe Hill) or controversially (the anarchist Stuart Christie, who was jailed at 18 for his part in a failed attempt to assassinate General Franco). Though painted from photographs, the sitters that populate Fullerton’s portraits fall easily and unsentimentally into postures familiar from 18th-century portraiture. While this tradition favoured personages of some social standing or else the unnamed country folk of Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘fancy pictures’, Fullerton’s choice of subjects willfully confuses any such easy dichotomy, in that both the names and biographies of the little-known or unrecognized are always given. Transgressive Act (David Shayler, Talking) (2006), for example, depicts the eponymous former MI5 officer, prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act in 1997 for leaking documents to The Mail on Sunday. Intriguingly, since the piece was completed Shayler has gone on to become a conduit for a very different kind of information as a leading advocate of the fairly unhinged 9/11 Truth Movement; this year he publicly declared himself to be the Messiah. In this, as with all of Fullerton’s portraits, what is left to emerge remains open.

Fullerton has incorporated the negotiations of legality into the installation of his exhibitions, as with Disclaimer (Jürgen Hambrecht, Unfinished) (2005), a portrait of the chairman of BASF – the very same German chemical company that manufactures ‘Magic Purple’. BASF are said to be so attentive to the representation of their senior employees that a cease-and-desist warning was issued to Fullerton as soon as a request to paint Hambrecht’s portrait was submitted. In a washed-out ceramic colour with some areas rubbed almost clean the portrait defiantly stopped short of a full likeness. On the gallery wall was stencilled a timeline of BASF’s inventions along with a mocked-up disclaimer, on a screen-printed Gainsborough landscape, positing the exhibition’s autonomy: ‘This exhibition is not sponsored by, not endorsed by, or in any way associated with Badisch Analin und Soda Fabrick.’

Fullerton’s practice also extends to screen prints, cast sculptures and assemblages. In many of these the relative reliability of accepted methods of mechanical recording becomes an area of tension, as with Hard Drives Under Erasure (2006), through which a current is run to erode the stored data. Two nascent bails of newsprint, No Title (‘Silence is so Accurate!’ – Mark Rothko 1947) (2004) and a selection of blank newspapers marked only with inky fingerprints, The Mirror, The People, The Observer & The Standard (2006), do not report information but pause at the point of component materials. As with the unfinished portrait of Hambrecht, Fullerton catches modes of recording at indeterminate stages, before a final claim on the processes of judgement can be made.

The most idiosyncratic of the materials that Fullerton uses is ferric oxide, better known as the magnetic coating of cassette tape. A liquefied tape recording of a child’s heartbeat is titled Analogue Version of a Pro-Life League Billboard in Denver (2002), an ironic proof of sorts of the point at which a political conundrum becomes a human life, while The Laughing Audience (2006) – liquid canned laughter – traces a gurgling line across a large mirror. Marginalized to the point of obsolescence since the advent of digital technology, the analogue recordings that are melted down to silvery ferric oxide constitute the substance of information in a way that digital cannot. As the Disclaimer … wall text notes, the first tape recorder was marketed by BASF, along with AEG, in 1935, a pre-digital era that is a point of return of sorts for Fullerton’s work. The Modernist avant-garde’s enthusiasm for the latest technology is halted in its tracks, a return that is not so much nostalgic for a lapsed medium as inquisitive as to how material differences affect evaluations of veracity. In 2005 Fullerton exhibited a series of found ‘Retina Paintings’, clouded orange discs that were the creepy predecessors to ophthalmic photography, harking back to the point when modern science temporarily enlisted the services of painting. There is a playful substitution involved in these spiralling representations of absent eyes (the retina is itself the hole in the eye), surrogates in the slippery transaction that looking and representing involve.

Fullerton has noted the influence on his work of American psychiatrist Murray Bowen, whose systems theory claims that two individuals have a tendency to ‘triangulate’ conflict by shifting emphasis to a third. Indeed, an adapted psychiatrist–patient dialogue was presented as a wall text in a 2004 exhibition, Fullerton inserting an extra line to the end of conversation: ‘The other day I was standing in the art gallery looking at a picture, and a man came up and said, “Gainsborough is nice, isn’t he?” So I said, “I like you too”.’ It is by these subtle acts of insertion that Fullerton acknowledges Gainsborough’s influence on his work; the only other explicit naming is another subterfuge, a ferric oxide piece claiming to be The Analogue Signal Entitled ‘Gainsborough and Romanticism’ First Broadcast by the BBC and The Open University August 1977. Such a programme doesn’t exist.

Despite these ironic acceptances of the burden of influence, Fullerton’s portraits never approach pastiche; it is the sincerity of technique that connects the 18th-century impositions of English patronage to a contemporary dismantling of such a privileged access to the means of representation. In this sense, Fullerton’s cast of anarchist heroes, informants and victims is not so much a documentation of a political class as an attempt to make sense of the politics involved with representation. Even when he paints an aristocrat, as with Lady Cosgrove, there is a teasing twist in the painting’s title, Lover (2003), which refers to an officious ex-girlfriend who refused to be painted – the power game of a relationship rather than a straightforward portrait. Fullerton has also painted a Gothic Red Riding Hood version of Margaret Burr (whom Gainsborough met while she was sitting for him and whom he went on to marry), self-consciously playing out portraiture as an act of anachronistic macho possession. This sense of painting as a sexualized intervention – lewdly explicit in Spunk (2001), a spurt of creamy paint on creased paper – also teeters on the violent: screen prints of love-bites abound, and in the William Hogarth-quoting portrait The Fourth Stage of Cruelty (2006) is Beatrice Lyall, a victim of domestic abuse.

Fullerton’s approach to representation is essentially democratic, and the sitters that he chooses are always named, yet the milieu in which they move, pastoral vistas or otherwise, are removed. Instead, murky swirls of brown and green emanate from the outlines of the subjects, sometimes with the suggestion of supporting furniture, scratches and marks. Long accompanying titles profess to inform honestly, providing the same informative biography as a stuffy museum wall text: Paddy Joe Hill (Wrongfully convicted with six other men of the IRA bombing of the Tavern and the Mulberry Bush pubs in Birmingham 1979 (Birmingham Six). Exonerated 17 years later. Founding member of MOJO UK – Miscarriages of Justice Organization) (2003). And yet the relationship between the formal restraint of these muted portraits and the enthusiastic helpfulness of the titles is an uncomfortable one; if we cannot place the sitter, as is frequently the case, the title does the work for us – and more. Although their tone suggests otherwise, it is in the titles of these pieces where Fullerton’s rhetoric is most persuasive. The portrait of the staunchly pro-life US senator Wayne Allard is titled I Know It’s Hard. Trying to Defend an Unpopular Policy Every Once in a While. Wayne Allard. Voting Record: 100% Pro-Life (2003). While not going so far as to be gauchely ironic, the viewer would never mistake the title’s tone for reverence.

Fullerton’s exhibition titles have suggested a provocative challenge to the viewer’s attempt to interpret the work: ‘Get Over Yourself’, ‘Are You Hung Up?’, ‘Suck on Science’. And yet his most recent exhibition at Carl Freedman Gallery, London, ‘Pleasure in Nonsense’, has a self-deprecating ring that perhaps recasts the seeming defiance of previous titles as a modern painter’s neurotic self-address. It is taken from a line in Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Human, All Too Human (1878): ‘[A]lmost everywhere there is happiness there is pleasure in nonsense. The overturning of experience into its opposite […] delights us, for it momentarily liberates us from the constraint of the necessary, the purposive and that which corresponds to our experience, which we usually see as our inexorable masters.’1 Before his MFA Fullerton painted the philosopher as a convalescent anaemic (Nietzsche as ‘The Victim’) and also showed large screen prints titled ‘Nietzsche’s House in Panoscope’ (2004) as part of ‘Suck on Science’. Nietzsche’s sustained critique of the will to truth is central to Fullerton’s ethical ambition, replacing truth’s dogmatism with the search for conditions of possibility. Yet, as Jacques Rancière argues in The Politics of Aesthetics (2004), ‘commitment is not a category of art’;2 however similar they may be in the way they operate, virtue in art is not connected to politics. As Fullerton’s aesthetics of persuasion demonstrates, a series of choices, the selective act of recording, are all that is open to the artist.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘From the Souls of Artists and Writers’, Human, All Too Human, Book IV, 1878, p. 213.
2 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, London, 2004, p. 60.