Gedankenexperiemente in Zombie Aesthetics

“A centipedesque dragon, its jaws opened to swallow a yellow ball.”– Carl Jung

Mayuko, Alice & I came across American artist Paul Laffoley in a group show at Palais de Tokyo gallery in Paris the other week – great big boards with neon shades and sharp stencils, like something from an Amsterdam coffee shop or a Gathering rave circa ’97.

One painting in that show, from 1970, contained a landscape like Danté or Dali, with a precarious structure labeled as “the bridge of reality addicts obsessed with oblivion artists”. That line stuck out, since Coco Solid & I had lately been talking about thin skin, stretched canvas and the philosophy of $2 lemonade scones, after she wrote a pop-quiz titled “Why Are You An Artist Again?”.

The oblivion of artists usually prompts a tacky kind of voyeurism – as in speculation on the fate of Roman Polanski, or the Grey Gardens-style documentary on fallen 80s mega art star Chuck Connelly. Jeanette Winterson perhaps summarised it best in her essay on how “the mad, bad and dangerous wild boys of high art and popular culture make great copy, while the women—Plath, Frida Kahlo, Maria Callas, Janis Joplin—imploding like dark stars, are the stuff of obsession.” No one’s fate is absolutely certain, least of all perhaps the artist’s, whose job it is to elevate the mundane to mystical and vice versa.

But Laffoley’s works are somehow reassuring in their relentless cataloguing of phantasmagoria, like a glimpse inside the mind of a 16 year old boy crossed with a 70 year old professor of paranormal phenomena, the Ancient Greek Concept of Fate, “Skepticism and Animal Faith”, the mystery of geometry & math, Jean Paul Sartre and Catholicism. The paintings are a little overbearing in real life, but less confrontational when seen in internet jpeg size (I like them better that way – although you can’t quite read all the meticulously inscribed quotes and philosophical references).

Who doesn’t love lists? Laffoley paints (and blogs) with some kind of stubborn intent to list every philosophical thought of all time – riffing on a Weezer album cover with a floating dog, linking it to Aesthetic Catholics and Brigitte Bardot. A stoned ’70s stream of consciousness in which tiny slivers of pop culture can unlock the universe.

Umberto Eco wrote that Western culture is addicted to gathering & lists, a ‘poetics of catalogues’: halls of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art. If Eco is right, Laffoley could forget Sartre. A list of deep-frozen readymeals should feel equally as mystical.

In fact, Laffoley was at one time recruited by Warhol – to watch TV at the time of night when nothing was showing. (Laffoley is also an architect who worked on one of the World Trade center towers).

But Laffoley’s paintings – less categorical when tamed in screen size shots – are influenced by mandalas, a product of Eastern religion. A mandala, unlike a list, doesn’t seek to tame or define, but to show light, shadows, the endlessness of pure geometry and the oblivion of existentialism, all as facets or even repetitions. Not finite. And perhaps necessarily nonsensical.

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