At the core of Paul Sloan’s most recent body of work, Interior Motives, the objects, fetishes, and preoccupations of today’s taste makers and armchair philosophers butt up against ruptured records and alternate visions of recent history.
Sculptures encased in museum display cabinets are surrounded by a swarming hoard of eyes; a well-healed woman reclines in an iconic Mies van der Rohe chair, her face replaced by a fishing trawler; a Prussian blue bomb rests effetely against a studio wall, latent with dormant possibilities, while camels trek upside down upon an inverted path.
As we float, like flotsam and jetsam, caught in the flux of increasingly borderless and digitised existences, Sloan’s work resounds as a timely reminder, a reckoner, of everything that Paul Valery and Walter Benjamin once wrestled with: the possibilities of aesthetic battlefields, where it is a sense of place that comes to the fore.
In Interior Motives Sloan opens up the sacred public and private spaces of the art gallery, the museum, the home interior, and the artist’s studio – all of them substructural sites that reflect our superstructural ideological assumptions, hopes, and ideologies. In the winter of 2015 I arranged to meet Sloan in his studio, a distillation of the amorphous constellation of his own particular ideology. This is a record of that visit.
He welcomes me, inviting me to look at the new work that hangs on his studio walls. “Now, more than ever before, images come directly into our homes,” Sloan reflects. “Magazines, online magazines, design blogs, the internet. It’s right there, and it’s immediate.” He flips through the pages of an interior design magazine, its cover so glossy it catches the light as he opens it. “You can read Walter Benjamin writing in 1936, referring to Paul Valery who said in 1931 that
Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign. (1)
And that’s very much what we are dealing with right now,” he concludes, his fingers reaching for a pouch of tobacco.
The thinking of prescient figures such as Benjamin seems to resonate strongly with Sloan and finds expression in his work. Firstly, we can see the alignment with a call to view art as inherently political. Secondly, both Benjamin and Sloan share a predilection for a revolutionary call to arms. I note that the word REVOLUTION is spray painted on the wall opposite his studio. I ask him about it and he deflects the question, replying instead by posing the question “shouldn’t art always call for revolution?”
In Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin asserts that the “logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” (2) Conversely, Benjamin says, we can respond by politicising art, and it is exactly that which Sloan does.
In Interior Motives, Sloan presents collages constructed out of images taken from found art, architecture, and design magazines. During his artist residency at HIAP in Helsinki, Sloan established a daily ritual of making collages from the magazines left by previous residents. Produced over a period of three months, these works play into a rich field of practice that was established in the twentieth century.
From the seminal Modernist collages of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso (which brought sculptural elements directly onto the surface plane of the painting), to the political collage and photomontage works of Dada artist Hannah Hoch (which used images and text appropriated from mass media to attack the ideals popularised by Weimar Germany’s media), through to the photomontages and composite images of Pop Art artists such as Richard Hamilton, the processes of collage and photomontage can be seen as inherently disruptive and non-linear. The artist is able to shatter the prison cells of space and time, creating new possibilities, surreal juxtapositions, and dissident commentaries.
Sloan exploits these potentials of collage while traversing back into the realms of painting and printmaking. Expressive mark making – paint poured directly, sensitively, onto canvas – punctuates each image. He disrupts the privileged, sacred interior spaces of the museum, the art gallery, the home interior, and the artist’s studio, creating new spaces for contemplation, inviting unexpected things, people, and events to enter, allowing commentaries to arise that are sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, yet always profoundly subversive.
“What we need to recognise now,” he says, lighting the cigarette he has rolled, “is something that has been with us for a long time, maybe it’s always been with us. Modern technology just forces the issue.” Sloan goes on to talk about technology, reproduction, the reproduction of art and objects, and what we subconsciously absorb when we look at glossy magazines.
I learn that when Sloan was on the residency at HIAP on Suomenlinna Island, located off the coast Helsinki and only accessible by an icebreaker vessel in winter, he started working with a new methodology founded in mechanical reproduction. He started producing collages and scanning them, then painting canvases, anticipating the collages to be printed on to them. The resulting works became Interior Motives.
“This is a way of working that allows me to work anywhere, I don’t need to be at home, in my studio, I can really be anywhere,” he says, at once describing his method of working and declaring a new-found sense of freedom, of not needing to be tied to one place.
The conversation turns toward technology again, and how it brings the world closer to us, wherever we are. “Today through the internet, social media, and reality TV, anyone can be a celebrity, everyone is an expert, and everyone is a critic,” Sloan observes. Benjamin foresaw this state of affairs, noting in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that the distinction between ‘artists’ and ‘the public’ was on the cusp of losing its fundamental character, that anyone – regardless of their training, education, or merit – could be an artist, a writer, or a critic due to their increased access to technology.
Benjamin also noted the rising star of the ‘spell of personality,’ the ‘phony spell’ of commodity, and our overwhelming desire to ‘bring things closer humanly and spatially.’ Critically, he noted that techniques of reproduction detach reproduced objects from established realms of tradition. Sloan muses, “There are myriad possibilities that emerge through reproduction. Through removing the image of an object from its original context it can gain a new existence, be reactivated.”
I ask how it is to be home and back in his studio after three months away. “In all of this, the idea of home or being attached to a singular sense of place, for me, just reduces to the political. What you believe in is in you wherever you go. It transcends space, and you realise that any sense of place you have is transitory. But your politics, your belief in freedom, equality, liberty, whatever, is present everywhere with you. It abides in every place with you.”
Clearly for Paul Sloan, art and politics are inextricably linked. In Interior Motives, Sloan reminds us that the possibilities of what constitutes our present are always at once both aesthetic and political, and our political claims are there for the staking.