Merging recondite reveries on time, failed utopias and the esoteric, both Rick Buckley and Paul Johnson’s exhibitions at Focal Point Gallery are drawn from a convergence of darkness and luminosity. These are apt ideas for an estuary landscape that is both dream and nightmare, light and dark.
The understanding of ancient peoples and their artefacts are informed as much by twentieth century conditioning as by an impossible notion of knowledge. Johnson’s ‘Multiverse’ (2015), which combines coke bottles as colourful patterns on a paper and a birch plywood megalith sculpture, mixes the language of commercial products and ancient practices to proffer a view of the future. Nearby stands ‘Sub-Human’ (2015) a large form reminiscent of a Cornish hole-stone. His upended ‘Dune Buggy’ (2015) attests to another dissolution of progress, evoking the radical nature of the fragment as autonomous sliver. It echoes a Ballardian obsession with the car as the defining relic of the twentieth century, as well as a prop from one of Ballard’s entropic desert stories. These objects seem to be remnants from some postdiluvial rubbish dump, also suggesting something of the Duchampian ‘delay’, wherein another piece, Johnson’s wallet –‘Wallet (5 years)’ (2010-15) - has become a meditation on time and objecthood.
In the atrium’s display cabinets is ‘A Suggestive Enquiry Into Hermetic Philosophy’ (2015), a tentative gesture towards process and the crystallising and reforming of thought in all its random shards. The precarious leaves of paper – including images of Saturn, a seascape, and various facial forms, alongside handwritten text – are desultorily taped to rudimentary wooden cube shelving, replete with stacks of paper and studio detritus. The methodologies by which peoples shape their being in the world through systems of belief and purpose echoes Johnson’s strange megaliths that embrace unknowing. The cabinets further suggest the immateriality of sculpture and the ways in which it deals with the speculative fabric of reality itself. The work’s title alludes to the sealed glass cabinet doors and the Ancient Egyptian alchemic jar, occluded, darkened and tightly sealed.
Buckley’s exhibition, ‘Black Bile 84’ flows through his melancholic reflections on Southend. The Greek word for melancholy comes from that for black bile, ‘melas kholé’ – bad choler. The four humours were closely related to the idea of microcosm/macrocosm, patterning the four elements of the body to corresponding elements of the cosmos. Black bile corresponds to earth, which is notable given half of ‘Black Bile 84’ is out-posted into the deeply dredged Thames, the other half positioned safely in-land in Gallery 2: a microcosm and a macrocosm. Johnson’s ‘Goddess’ (2015), a paper planet-like formation on the wall of Gallery 1 again tells of the cosmos and the earth. It depicts a ghostly image of a site at the mythic Gog Magog Downs in Cambridgeshire, Gog and Magog being apocalyptic biblical figures and latterly guardians of the City of London. Johnson speculates too on the ‘Sunless Sea’ and the strange darkness this could bring to the planet. What, further, would a moonless (then, tide-less) sea augur?
Buckley’s super 8 films ‘Jack’s Fountain’ (2012) and ‘Black Bile 84’ (2015) include patterns from Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine. These sit alongside radiant sunlit views of Southend’s civic fountain (1971), a strange Inca-influenced work depicting the borough’s coat of arms by William Mitchell. The patterns on the three large steles reflect Johnson’s megalithic ‘Multiverse’ (2015) in their proportions. Between the films sits ‘Civic Chamber’ (2015) a maquette on a sandy hillock, a rising sound of gurgling water periodically crescendos from within. The films, in which the civic fountain is depicted, also feature the strange ponds of nearby Churchill Gardens. Buckley speaks of how he was drawn to the ‘menacing’ atmosphere, the gardens acting as some uncanny portal of correspondence to other arcane times, whereas the Brutalist fountain sculpture attests to a time of optimism and civic ambition.
Conversely, Buckley’s work at the end of Southend Pier views the town from the other end of the periscope, accessing the onset of industrial production and over-fishing in the estuary during the nineteenth century, and the resulting depletion of the once-prolific oyster harvest. (Contemporaneously, industrial shipping and dredging at the new Thames Gateway is again changing the eco-system and marine life of the estuary). A view from, and of, the pier train proposes a dreamlike time-lapse. Light features again, when a ghostly ship’s shadow slips past the bottom deck of the pier, leaving an empty stage set for this latent presence. Beached and muddy objects littering the mud appear like sub-aquatic shipwrecks, similar to Johnson’s post-apocalyptic ruins. Buckley’s found and borrowed archive material pertaining to the pier (largely about its numerous conflagrations) is also on display, and further echoes this eerie millenarianism: ‘You are at the END of the longest pier in the world’.
Johnson’s photograph in Gallery 1, ‘The Sunless Sea’ (2015), portrays a lurid, hallucinogenic rainbow of colours in a seascape. Analogously, Buckley’s interest in Gysin’s Dream Machine led the former, during his time at Southend Tech, to trip visions of fairy liquid cascading out of said civic fountain, in a mixture of correspondences,hallucinogens and alternative influences. The Dream Machine attempted to recreate an ancient stroboscopic technique, which, by using a flickering light device, induced patterns on the closed eyelids. This machine, also a relic of a certain phase of twentieth-century counter-culture is in some ways as much a modern reversion to myth as Johnson’s megaliths. Appropriately, of the Dream Machine, William Burroughs wrote ‘We must storm the citadels of enlightenment. The means are at hand’. Gysin had spoken of a visionary experience of flickering sunlight flashing sporadically through forest trees one afternoon, prevailing upon him to produce the machine. Again, light provides the means to ‘make the ghosts walk in public’.
Through these materialisations, both Johnson and Buckley hint at chaos just beyond peripheral vision: a sunless sea and a flash of light on the eyelids that portend strange visions in the estuary. As Marlow says in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1899), as their ship passes the Essex marshes ‘we live in the flicker’.