« in the hand’s footsteps»

Ellen Mara De Wachter on B/Q

In the 1970s, the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) made a number of small paintings on paper, in the manner of American painter Cy Twombly (1928-2011). Through this practice, at first glance so different from his essay writing, Barthes sought to embody Twombly’s manner of producing work: the specific combination of style and substance, the ineffable ‘gesture’ that makes a Twombly a Twombly. It’s not surprising, given Barthes’ devotion to text, that he alighted on a painter renowned for making formally abstract works that frequently incorporate handwriting. But rather than seeking literal meaning in the painter’s scrawled words, Barthes recognised in Twombly something of the ‘allusive field of writing’[i], in which, as Barthes put it, the text might offer ‘scraps of indolence, hence of an extreme elegance; as if there remained, after writing, which is a powerful erotic action, what Verlaine calls la fatigue amoureuse: that garment dropped in a corner of the … canvas.’[ii]A bittersweet enamoured feeling, an identification in which the lover wants to – but never quite manages to – become the loved one, with all that this sense might contain of loss and longing. 

Barthes was a master at pulling apart specific aspects of the status quo to rebuild them as alluring theoretical discourse, all the while revealing the subtle dynamics at play in the power of the cultural artefacts that surround us. It is touching to discover Barthes’ Sunday paintings – he never saw his versions of Twombly’s paintings as artworks per se. It’s a practice that reveals him as a fan, attempting to replicate his idol’s unique skill, to incarnate Twombly’s gesture by finding in his body the same balance of intensity and expression, stillness and movement that would have furnished Twombly’s work with its beguiling and ungainly sophistication – a characteristic Barthes called ‘gaucheness’.

It is often said of Twombly’s script that it seems to have been written with the wrong hand, as if the artist had held the crayon in his left hand. Traces of that other, left-handed artist are available in the marks on the canvas, pointing to the existence of multiple Twomblys, or at least a number of available ‘Twombly skins’ that might be donned by others. Twombly, when he writes with his left hand, is not quite himself. He is somehow incarnating the mythical heroes and villains he channels in the lines of energy he draws and paints. In this play of identity, Twombly reminds us of the statement made by the young Arthur Rimbaud in a letter to his teacher Georges Izambard in 1871: ‘I is someone else.’ 

This process of making excursions into other personae is achieved not by altering or cloaking the body, but by the hand’s own movements: and these actions are potentially available to all, not just to self-professed artists. It is a plurality available through handiwork or mark-making, which goes beyond an act of the imagination to a condition of incarnation: one no longer simply thinks about doing something, one gest one’s hands dirty by touching the world. 

Barthes explains gesture as the ‘surplus of an action’ … ‘the indeterminate and inexhaustible total of reasons, pulsions, indolences which surround the action with an atmosphere(in the astronomical sense of the word).’[iii]Magnus Quaife’s longstanding engagement with Barthes’ ideas led him to tackle the gestures of both Barthes and Twombly, albeit in different ways. Quaife concedes that his relationship with Twombly’s work over the years has been a conflicted one, but following Barthes’ example, he has sought to understand Twombly’s unique gesture through processes of making, unmaking and remaking Twombly’s paintings – as well as Barthes’ versions of them. The title of his exhibition ‘B/Q’ is a parallel structure to that of ‘S/Z’, Barthes’ structuralist analysis of Honoré de Balzac’s 1830 novella ‘Sarrasine’, whose chapter headings also lend Quaife’s new works their titles. A typographical chimera, the exhibition’s title unites Barthes’ and Quaife’s initials with a forward slash, evoking the simultaneous complicity and discord between two protagonists of this exhibition’s story. 

In making new work for ‘B/Q’, Quaife didn’t just paint: he performed an adroit sequence of manoeuvres, some conceptual, others technical, which enabled him to discover what Twombly’s and Barthes’ gestures might have felt like, with the aim of developing and refining his own gesture. A manoeuvre is more than simply a process: the term refers to tactical movement and comes from the French ‘main d’oeuvre’, itself derived from the Latin for ‘work of the hand’. The eye and the hand work together in this undertaking, and Quaife speaks of how he ‘got acquainted with Barthes’ by painting numerous portraits of him on French Ruled paper. It’s no coincidence that this ‘Papier Séyès’, with its 2mm lined square, named after the Parisian stationer who designed it, is used throughout France to familiarise children with the gesture of forming letters: to train their hands how to write. Onto these portraits, Quaife collaged fragments of dissected reproductions of Barthes’ paintings of Twomblys. They are embedded in globules of paint, dotted across the surface of the portraits. These photographic vignettes of the fruits of Barthes’ painterly labour hover before his face like floating afterimages. 

For the vast diptych LXVIII How an Orgy Is Created (2015), Quaife adopted a different strategy, which began with the artist slicing an exhibition poster featuring one of Twombly’s works into hundreds of pieces. For this elaborate manoeuvre, Quaife developed a set of specific rules according to which he attempted to cut the print into sections following the smallest brushstrokes possible, working intuitively and without speculating on his decisions. Every one of the hundreds of pieces of cut-up poster was used to make the final work, even the minute diacritical marks of the small print caption for the poster image. First embedding each piece of paper into a thick slick of snowy white paint on the left hand canvas, which he had combed through by dragging a saw blade across it, Quaife then removed every fragment by hand, leaving behind a heavily touched impasto. He then arranged the bits of paper on the right hand panel of the diptych. It’s a technique reminiscent of the ‘pique assiette’, a kind of mosaic created from broken plates and assorted shards of crockery, pioneered in the late 1930s by a French grave sweeper, Raymond Edouard Isidore. In common parlance, the term ‘pique assiette’ also denotes one who eats from others’ plates, pinching titbits from the physical nourishment of his neighbours. 

Working quickly, with just a few days to complete the positioning and repositioning of hundreds of elements before the paint hardened, Quaife brought the shreds of paper (Barthes’ preferred surface) together with paint and canvas (Twombly’s signature materials), marrying them, embedding one in the other, cajoling them into overcoming the fraught relationship between the two media. By peeling the photographic fragments off the left hand panel of the diptych, Quaife left behind a flattened area, a trace or scar. He also lost the occasional shard of paper, embedded too deep in the peaked Italian meringue of white paint, although mostly these abandoned fragments bore letters rather than brushstrokes: the unambiguous letter-forms perhaps already having served their purpose, and no longer providing any mystery. This uneasy marriage between flatness and texture is also performed within the very surface of the poster, in the image of Twombly’s work. The photographic reproduction struggles with the heavy multi-coloured impasto of Untitled(1990), paradoxically rendering Twombly’s abstraction into a representational image. Nor can the flatness imposed by mechanical reproduction make sense of the shadows the work depicted casts on itself, with highlighted ridges entailing shaded vales that contradict the light in the gallery. There is a sensory disconnect in effect across the surface of LXVIII How an Orgy Is Created: the flattened focal plane of the photographic fragments reject a focused gaze, and the eye slips off them. 

Quaife’s dissection of the image of Twombly’s painting suggests a forensic attitude, or perhaps even a conflicted and obsessive love for an object of enquiry. It’s a fascination that destroys the thing it loves, but then enters a redemptory phase, in which it becomes clear that the dissection was conducted precisely in order to own and to build the thing back up again, albeit in a radically different form. 

Quaife’s forensic approach entailed five weeks during which he painstakingly cut out the image with a surgical scalpel, with such intentness that the repeated pressure he applied to his cutting tools resulted in the loss of sensation in his finger, an injury hardly mitigated by the sense of pathological boredom he developed over those five weeks. But by carving up the image, Quaife was equipping himself with the elements he would need for the creative progression of his own work, to move from a phase of analysis into one of genesis. One surmises a condition of ‘scalpel apnoea’, in which Quaife held his breath each time he pressed down on the blade. Other forensic techniques were put at the service of Quaife’s diagnosis of Barthes’ and Twombly’s gestures: photographing, scanning and blowing up prints of Barthes’ paintings in search of evidence – a secret message, or perhaps a figure hiding in the foliage of an abstract pattern as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 groovy mystery ‘Blow-Up’. Or, as with LXXV The Declaration of Love (2015),circling through a slide show of extreme close-ups of cut-out fragments of print, in which rosettes of Ben-Day dots become clearly visible. 

This investigative energy fuelled a process of thinking through the body; a twofold approach of physical and cognitive investigation through what Barthes termed ‘gesture’. Quaife shows us the universal process of unpicking the tight weave of one’s appreciation for the work of others, searching for threads that can be transferred into one’s own life and behaviour. Children, singing into the mirror, impersonate their idols, testing out identifying gestures. Writers pull apart syntax and rhetoric, rehearsing fragments by hand with pen on paper, in order to emulate an author’s charmed capacity to create atmosphere. Doctors operate on bodies and analyse samples as part of research aimed at understanding a particular condition: happiness, disease, talent. All of these methods aim to produce a body of knowledge via an active imagination – and a becoming– of another’s physical body. It is a tactic Barthes explained with reference to his paintings of Twombly’s works: ‘I am not directly imitating TW (what would be the use of that?), I am imitating his gesture, which I, if not unconsciously, at least dreamily, infer from my reading; I am not copying the product, but the producing, I am putting myself, so to speak, in the hand’s footsteps.’[iv]


[i]Roland Barthes, ‘Cy Twombly: Works on Paper’, The Responsibility of Forms, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991. P. 158

[ii]Ibid. P. 159

[iii]Ibid. P. 160

[iv]Ibid. P. 171

Magnus Quaife: La beauté est dans la rue

Andrew Hunt on While England Mourns

Aw stoode beside Tim Bobbin’s grave
‘At looks o’er Ratchda’ teawn,
An’ th’ owd lad woke within’ his yerth,
An’ sed "where arto’ beawn?"

Awm gooin’ into th’ Packer street,
As far as th’ Gowden Bell,
To taste o’ Daniel’s Kesmus ale."
Tim – "I cud like a saup myself.
Samuel Bamford,Tim Bobbin’s Grave

Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs

–    Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

I was seven years old in 1976 when Malcolm McLaren camped-up the Situationist International’s revolutionary intentions for punk. Compared to those who witnessed this cultural phenomenon first hand, as well as ‘the last great avant-garde’ ten years earlier, my first direct experience of the SI (1957-1972) came in the late-1980s, when I saw Iwona Blazwick’s seminal exhibition ‘On the Passage of a Few People Through a Brief Period of Time’ at the ICA in London in 1989. 

I bought the exhibition’s sandpaper catalogue[1](a famous homage to an SI journal, which was also copied in the late 1970s by Manchester’s The Durutti Column’s first album for Factory Records), watched the BBC2 late show programme dedicated to the exhibition, trawled the now-defunct London bookshop Compendium’s basement for further literature, watched an un-translated French VHS copy of Guy Debord’s film The Society of the Spectacle– unfortunately I didn’t and still don’t speak French – and wrote my undergraduate dissertation at Kingston Polytechnic on the group’s legacy. Less than a month later I was involved in the 1990 Poll Tax Riot, a ground zero event for culture in the UK for the following decade. I can only speak for myself, but Blazwick’s exhibition on The Mall provided the initial ‘theory’ for the ‘practice’ that took place further on up the road in Trafalgar Square.

            Of course, in the UK, Manchester’s own Situationist pop moment came via Factory and The Hacienda; it was a long catalyst for cultural change in the north of England. Although Factory gave up the ghost in 1992, the effects of the record label and the SI’s theory still reverberate in the city. In part, however, Wilson’s famous phrase: ‘this is Manchester, we do things differently here’ has become a corporate driver for regeneration, and within the context of Brexit one could argue it reads as insular resistance to change, a variation on the curmudgeonly northern caricature epitomised by the phrase ‘there’s nowt wrong with round here’, opposed to the easy nature of Mancunian lateral free-thinking within the history of the city’s continued proud proclamation of independence. 

            So, what now? Within a new era of high capitalism[2]it might be interesting to look at the margins of Greater Manchester and small relaxed towns such as Bury, Bolton, Leigh, Stockport and Hebden Bridge as vistas with which to dwell on the future of politics and resistance. Perhaps it’s these conurbations that provide potential away from major city centres for agitation as well as glittering forms of proletarian indolence?

In Rochdale sits Touchstones, the gallery that will show Magnus Quaife’s paintings that celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of May 1968, when the SI’s posters and slogans adorned the streets of Paris. This exhibition represents an ambiguous approach to theory and practice in the tradition of Blazwick’s late-1980s model at the ICA in London, as well as a critique of art being used for anything other than aesthetic contemplation, bearing in mind that some still believe that art’s most political essence is contained in its useless aesthetic dimension, rather than in any way it can be ‘employed’ by the market, community activism or by tax-payers’ money for state-funded ‘provocation’.

With a satirical nod to acknowledge and problematize this fact, Quaife has literally put his paintings to work by using them as cladding and insulation for the gallery, a move that attempts to ‘barricade’ the institution from the outside world in the style of protesters in the street fifty years earlier, and reinforces the gallery as a hermetically-sealed autonomous space for viewing the work he has made. The pendulum, of course, swings back, when we realise that these paintings contain the famous Situationist slogan la beauté est dans la rue (beauty is in the street), a poetically political call to action outside of the academy, institution or gallery, with the image showing a young woman hurling a cobblestone at the viewer. 

There’s a self-deprecating humour to this self-contained yet outward-facing system of presenting painting. Quaife has used examples of the Lancashire dialect – obscure indecipherable folk phrases from the English caricaturist and satirical poet Tim Bobbin[3](the pseudonym of John Collier, who styled himself as a Lancashire Hogarth)– and translated them into clear Situationist-style slogans, effectively turning the aforementioned local curmudgeonly northern caricature of post-Factory corporate high-capitalism in Greater Manchester into a form of utopian internationalism. 

And this contemporary satire on failed British internationalism isn’t purely a knee-jerk reaction to Brexit, it exceeds it: it’s a symbolic reversal of a wider symptom within contemporary art institutions in the UK to convert arguments for unnationalistic tendencies into local UK issues; clumsy attempts at soft cultural power that have operated since the utopian post-World War Two attempt of Conceptual Art to transcend nationalism was appropriated by the burgeoning UK arts establishment in the early 1970s, a trope that continued into the 1990s with a fabricated scene; a variety of neo-conceptualism that can now be read as British window dressing for new property – many of the latter being unsustainable, unfit-for-purpose lottery-funded galleries designed by star architects that sit at odds with their surroundings – which spearheaded cultural regeneration, but also unwittingly gentrification and the housing crisis.[4]

Unusually, this is where the category of a new reflexivity in painting comes in. Firstly, two further historical moments are notable: the mid-1990s when the German artist Martin Kippenberger’s combination of expressionism and institutional critique made painting officially less-embarrassing after the money-fixated 1980s, and 2016’s exhibition ‘Painting 2:0’, which examined a number of post-Kippenberger genres of reflexive painting and their digital ‘networked’ varieties.

In 2018 one can argue that reflexive painting has become an urgent form of political art through its ability to jar with digital culture and petrified forms of political and participatory art. Secondly, it represents a form of fluid temporality and aesthetic reflexivity combined with an internationalism that is astounding in its sophistication and level of critique, not only of the dominance of film and video as the legacy of conceptualism’s false promise and mechanical thought, but of the institutions in the UK and abroad that support this legacy.

Importantly, Quaife is aware of this refined debate and its main protagonists in New York and Berlin. One can imagine a future in which the artist is a main player in activities in which arts organisations in Greater Manchester connect with their imaginative counterparts in Germany and the US. This outward-looking conversation might contain an increasingly relaxed and phlegmatic richness that produces a network of resistance – a refusal not only of the aforementioned British establishment’s insecure UK-centred discourse, but of the international perils of an accelerated culture of a new high capitalism.


[1]An endless adventure ... an endless passion ... an endless banquet. A Situationist Scrapbook, edited by Iwona Blazwick in consultation with Mark Francis, Peter Wollen and Malcolm Imrie, Verso/ ICA Publications, London, 1989. 96 pp. ISBN 0- 8691-983-8. £10.95. (sandpaperback)

[2]Peter Osborne has argued that a new era of ‘High Capitalism’ has arrived, one which initially coincided with the temporality of art from Baudelaire’s concept of Modernity in the nineteenth century and which now operates alongside the post-conceptual condition of contemporary art after various instances of ‘Late Capitalism’ in the mid-twentieth century. Peter Osborne, The Postconceptual Condition, Verso, 2018. Page 10.

[3]John Collier (18 December 1708 – 14 July 1786) was an English caricaturist and satirical poet known by the pseudonym of Tim Bobbin, or Timothy Bobbin. The son of an impoverished curate, he moved to Milnrow at the age of seventeen to work as a schoolmaster. His first and most famous work, A View of the Lancashire Dialect, or, Tummus and Mary, appeared in 1746, and is the earliest significant piece of Lancashire dialect to be published.

[4]The first major survey of Conceptual Art in the UK was ‘The New Art’ at The Hayward Gallery in 1972, which was curated by Anne Seymour and Nicholas Serota. Its artists were all British except the Canadian Michael Craig-Martin. Seymour, a Tate curator in the early 1970s, married the dealer Anthony d’Offay in 1977 and became his business partner. d’Offay represented many first-generation Conceptual Artists, helping make their work larger and more spectacular during the 1980s. Craig-Martin became an academic at Goldsmiths College and went on to create and promote the young British artist movement with Serota in the early 1990s. Serota was director of Tate between 1988 and 2017, while Craig-Martin was a Tate trustee for two five-year periods (rather than the usual one) between 1989 and 1999, alongside many respected property developers and architects. 


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