Anna McNay

Essay on the work of Nick Malone


through Time and Space: Meaning and Interpretation in the Work of Nick Malone

Nick Malone would
rather think of his current practice as that of a painter who writes, than a
writer who paints. His career trajectory has taken him from writer, with a
sideline as a literary academic; to painter; to painter employing fragments of
text in his works; to, most recently, author (does one say author, or artist?)
of a graphic novel, purporting to tell the (abridged) story of his far from
mundane life. For his exhibition at Art Bermondsey Project Space, Malone will
bring together this graphic novel, as it currently stands, with a soundscape
bringing to life its final, dramatic sequence, and some of his recent, large
three-dimensional paintings, all of which draw from what he describes as his
‘personal and private mythology’. In such a scenario, without knowing the
artist’s story in advance, one might well wonder how the visitor is to pinpoint
any meaning in the work, or, more importantly, whether there even is such a
thing. What can one hope to find? ‘They do have meanings,’ says Malone, of the
assorted works that will be on display. ‘And they all emanate from this common
vision. But there is no absolute […] There are differences in emphasis.’

Using a model,
whereby the subject matter and artist’s intention are external to the work of
art as an aesthetic object, Virgil C Aldrich delineates a difference between an
artist’s intention and the meaning of the work.

‘Just as someone might say something he did not intend to say, so
may an artist fail to get his intended message across. […] Thus do the material
and the medium have their own powers of expression which may run counter to the
intention of the user, depending on how he deploys them.’

He concedes, however,
that knowing both the subject matter and the artist’s intentions ‘tends to
assist one to grasp what is in the work’. Malone, however, would not see
such a difference in intention and received meaning as a failure. The
‘differences in emphasis’ he refers to are, if anything, quite deliberate,
stemming from his deep-seated intrigue with ‘ambiguity, and the possibilities
of multiple significance in meaning’[ii].

Malone’s paintings
deliberately eschew a hierarchic structure, as he seeks to introduce chance
into his practice,
pouring paint over hidden objects, creating a 3D
landscape, and it is their mixed-medial nature, in which word and image
simultaneously elucidate and obfuscate one another, ‘sharing the same space,
though remaining clearly distinguished in terms of spatial relations, kind of
intelligibility and often the division of labour,’[iii] that
engenders what Simon Morley terms ‘topographic’ space, namely space subsuming
both time and space.[iv]
Accordingly, as well as subverting hierarchies, Malone’s works breach the
boundaries of painting, considered since GE Lessing’s seminal essay, Laocöon:
An Essay upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting
(1766), to be a medium
concerned solely with space:

‘Painting, by virtue of its symbols or means of imitation, which it
can combine in space only, must renounce the element of time entirely,
progressive actions… cannot be considered to belong among its subjects.
Painting must be content with coexistent actions or with mere bodies which, by
their position, permit us to conjecture an action [ie. imply a narrative].’

In Malone’s work,
both space and time play a role, and a certain level of ambiguity necessarily
arises depending in part on which plane you view it from. In the graphic novel,
the level of diachronicity, or ability to travel back and forth through time,
is made explicit by the use of window
cut from one page through to the next (and back), an idea developed
from Richard McGuire’s Here (Pantheon Books, 2014). This time
travel might also be seen as space travel, however, but specifically space
travel between inner and outer worlds. As Malone explains, drawing inspiration
from the lines of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, with
which he opens his graphic novel:

‘There’s always the “you” and the “I”, and the “you” is the
Makepeace [a character in the novel], who opens the trapdoor into another
world. […] The two worlds co-exist and you can go between one and the other.
There’s this constant dialogue between the inner and the outer worlds.
Imagination comes from this. It’s the human psyche.’

By employing word
and image side-by-side, or, rather, interwoven and meshed, one on top of the
other, Malone’s works insist upon two distinct modes of information gathering –
one involving the visual scanning of the image and the other the reading of the
words. The former mode allows freedom of interpretation and uninhibited mental
and sensual movement, while the latter confines the reader to a predetermined
route, constructed from a row of letters to be deciphered from left to right or
top to bottom.[vi]
According to bi-lateral models of the brain, image interpretation takes place
in the right brain, the site of non-logical, intuitive skills, while language
is sited in the left brain, which shows a bias towards the rational, logical
and discursive. Morley concludes, therefore, that the interpretation of word
and image not only occurs at quite different speeds, but, involving different
orderings of perception, ‘we simply cannot do both simultaneously’.[vii] Thus
returning to Aldrich’s discussion of the origin of meaning, the material and
the medium of Malone’s work clearly exploit their own ‘power of expression’,
with word and image each drawing the viewer down its own route. Bringing the
overall picture together in one’s mind is not so much a process of discerning
the meaning as of creating an interpretation, and it is this
interpretation that offers the full aesthetic experience.[viii]

While Malone’s
work may arguably have one central subject matter (recall: ‘they all emanate
from this common vision’), his use of multiple media and materials means that
there is no direct mapping of meaning to interpretation. This situation, of a
‘quantitative abundance of the forms […] correspond[ing to] a small number of
concepts’, is equally a result of the model employed by Roland Barthes, in his
analysis of myth as a metalanguage,[ix] and
this model might be carried over to explain, in greater depth, the presence of
ambiguity and multiplicity of interpretation in Malone’s work – work dealing,
as we have heard, with his ‘personal and private mythology’.

In Mythologies,
Barthes takes Ferdinand de Saussure’s model of the linguistic sign,[x] as
composed of the signified (the underlying mental concept or form) and the
signifier (the arbitrary material aspect of the sign, with which the signified
becomes associated) and proposes a secondary or meta-system, whereby the
mythical sign (the myth) is composed of a signified and then a signifier,
itself comprising a pre-existing sign, the meaning of which is already complete.

This mythical
signifier ‘postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative
order of facts, ideas, decisions. […] When it becomes form, the meaning leaves
its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished…’[xi] The
essential point, however, is that the form does not suppress the meaning
entirely, it is still there, albeit at a distance, to be drawn on.

‘The meaning will be for the form like an instantaneous reserve of
history, a tamed richness, which it is possible to call and dismiss in a sort
of rapid alternation: the form must constantly be able to be rooted again in
the meaning and to get there what nature it needs for its nutriment…’

Thus, in the case
of Malone’s work, putting pre-established fragments of text together with
fragments of imagery is like building a doubly complex myth and creating a
metalinguistic sign from two or more pre-existing signifiers, each of which may
draw on multiple pre-determined meanings. Depending on which features one calls
up, and in which combination, the resulting interpretation might be infinitely
construed – a rich plethora of ambiguity. Barthes concludes:

‘Myth is a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still
motivated by the concept which they represent while not yet, by a long way,
covering the sum of its possibilities for representation.’

Since Malone’s
work, like the mythical concept, has at its disposal an unlimited mass of
signifiers (words and images), and since ‘there is no regular ratio between the
volume of the signified and that of the signifier’,[xiv] so
there is no limit on possible routes to and outcomes of interpretation.
Aldrich’s conclusion therefore holds: both form and content (or, in his terms,
medium/materials and content/subject matter) are key to the aesthetic
experience and interpretation, and this, with his rich variety of mixed media,
is an understanding that Malone exploits to the full.

© Anna McNay,
February 2017

Published in the catalogue to accompany Nick Malone: A Tale of Two Lives at Art Bermondsey Project Space, 14-25 March 2017

Also available on Nick Malone’s website

[i] Virgil C Aldrich, Philosophy of Art,
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1963, p92

[ii] Owing to a long-term friendship with the
writer William Empson

[iii] Simon Morley, Writing on the Wall. Word
and Image in Modern Art
, London: Thames & Hudson, 2003, p10

[iv] ibid, p17

[v] GE Lessing, Laocöon: An Essay upon the
Limits of Poetry and Painting
(1766) (trans with introduction and notes by
Edward Allen McCormick), Baltimore, MD, 1962, p77. Cited in J Dixon Hunt, D
Lomas and M Corris, Art, Word and Image. Two Thousand Years of
Visual/Textual Interaction
. London: Reaktion Books, 2010, p15

[vi] Morley (2003), p9

[vii] ibid

[viii] Aldrich (1963, p94) elaborates on this,
using Dylan Thomas’ poem, The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait, as an

‘Suppose […] you ask […] what does it mean? This could
be taken as a question about content and subject matter […]. But to press the
question in this direction would be to turn your back on what counts perhaps
even more, which is the texture of the medium of the composition; and that is
what a good interpretation […] will draw attention to. How does the interpreter
do this? How does he help you to the aesthetic experience of this property of
the medium? He reminds you of the materials of the poem, not its subject

[ix] Roland Barthes, Mythologies,
(selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers), St Albans: Granada
Publishing Limited, 1973, p120

[x] F de Saussure, Course in General
New York: Philosophical Library, 1959

[xi] ibid, p117

[xii] ibid, p118

[xiii] ibid, p127

[xiv] ibid, p120