Magnus Quaife’s recent exhibition, whose title B/Q Magnus Quaife and Roland Barthes, references Barthes’ own reading of Honoré de Balzac’s 1830 Novella ‘Sarrasine’, ‘S/Z’ (1970), places the artist and writer in a critical dialogue. Throughout the exhibition, Barthes’ method of dismantling texts in order to convey their underlying basis is revisited upon iconography drawn from the writer’s oeuvre. Painted approximations of book covers, and photographs of Barthes and his own ventures into art as a ‘Sunday painter’ are hung in the ground floor reception gallery. The front and reverse of printed copies of Barthes’ paintings, from which Quaife has cut out the printed paint marks are hung at the foot of the stairwell, and on the rear and right hand side wall of the basement gallery hangs the diptych ‘LXVIII How an Orgy Is Created’ (2015), commissioned by the gallery for the exhibition.
Quaife builds the exhibition’s conceptual framework by embodying different guises, from amateur enthusiast to perfunctory enactor of process, performing different acts of re-articulation – copying, notation, fragmentation and displacement – and exploring different potentials of arrangement and placement within the gallery. The result is an analysis of the plural forms in which the practice of painting manifests itself that corresponds with Barthes’ own structural analysis.
‘LXVIII How an Orgy Is Created’ exemplifies this process. The work comprises two 229 x 229cm canvases on which Quaife laid a white impasto ground that appears wet, due to the artist’s addition of Florentine medium. This surface was then horizontally screeded by Quaife with a saw. The artist embedded fragments from a poster for a Cy Twombly exhibition upon the left-hand canvas, which he then dissected down to the individual marks of paint. Finally, these fragments of printed matter were lifted out of the painted surface of the first canvas and re-positioned on the right hand canvas. The process alludes to the act of writing. The right-hand canvas is marked by grasping, pulling fingers, the screeding process produces a surface that suggests lined paper, and the repositioning of printed materials figures the left to right movement of the hand across the page. In texts such as ‘The Wisdom of Art’ (1979) and ‘Non Multa Sed Multum’ (1976), Barthes argues that Twombly enacts a range of manual acts from which signification arises. For example, Twombly’s ‘Bolsena’ works (1969) combine diagrammatic notations, text fragments, marks and scribbles documenting all the different ways with which the hand can make sense. Quaife widens the field to include orders of manual and mechanical image production, which he conceives as equal partners in our economy of representation and sense making.
The exhibition explores differences between forms of image production and their relationship to writing, and, like Barthes’ own critical analyses, benefits from close reading.
Andy Broadey is an artist based in Manchester and lecturer in Contemporary Art, History and Theory at the University of Central Lancashire.
Image courtesy of Castlefield Gallery and Simon Pantling.
B/Q Magnus Quaife and Roland Barthes, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.
4 December 2015 – 31 January 2016.