The Pragmatics of Anderson

JGM Gallery
Apr 5, 2019 5:54PM

In linguistics, ‘pragmatics’ studies language from a social point of view. It involves the complexities of using language day-to-day beyond simple meaning, with devices such as ambiguity, intention and ‘sub-text’. It is the aspect of language which requires living with language to understand the idiosyncrasies associated with its use: things that may have meaning but no specific translation, and depend on context for their understanding. ‘Implicature’ is a technical term in pragmatics referring to what is suggested, even though this may be neither expressed nor implied by an utterance. The paintings of Ralph Anderson borrow from familiar expressive elements of ‘painting language’, such as the brushstroke, the mark and the paint-drip. He does this at great speed, like a ‘new wave’ musician sampling sections of music, synthesising a new tune, or in Anderson’s case, a painting. The result plays with the visual familiarity of our lexicon, and its diffusion into new meanings. Like in pragmatics, meaning is not simply translating what is being said, but rather recognising some of the conventions or signs associated within a field of language. In Anderson’s case, the signs and visual language of late 20th and early 21st Century painting; in particular gestural and geometric abstraction - their use and miss-use.

In Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Romans in Films’, (published in Mythologies, 1957), Barthes describes the way in which “Roman-ness” is produced in the films of Joseph Mankiewicz through a series of subtle signs. An example is found in Julius Caesar (1953) where Barthes describes the way in which a ‘Roman fringe’, is a signifier for qualities such as Roman ‘virtue’ and ‘conquest’, and Barthes suggests that the ‘coding’ that guides our reading of everyday life, is punctuated by small gestures such as the Roman fringe, and that it is these subtle gestures which constitute the signs and signals through which we communicate in Western society.

Likewise, observational comedy – such as Seinfeld – deconstructs some of the pragmatic gestures, expressions and mannerisms typical of late 20th century metropolitan life. Storylines in this hit series became ‘water-cooler’ conversation topics, by the way in which New Yorkers knew exactly what was meant regardless of the obliqueness or fleetingness of the communication signs. In one episode George Costanza – a key protagonist of the series – is dating a girl that doesn’t complete stories but instead fills in blanks with “yada yada yada”. This expression became a cipher for many things and even the abbreviated ‘yada’ came to have a specific/non-specific meaning. Another trait of this TV series is the way in which elements in storylines were sometimes connected by degrees of separation. In this show about ‘nothing’, stories would often go full circle, or relate to disparate non sequiturs, through absurd or unexpected connections between its characters.

In Anderson’s use of pragmatic visual signs, he often employs similar strategies such as the punctuation of concentrated signs found in Barthes’ ‘Roman fringe’ and the connectivity of storylines in Seinfeld, and his paintings are like an orchestra declaring these connections simultaneously. The paintings are an open system for this declaration, but also rejoice in the cacophony and ‘mega-mix’ of sources, making the experience a combination of familiarity and disconcertion.

Take for example Anderson’s ‘The Dog of Flanders’, a five and a half metre wide triptych, executed in the style typical of the artist’s recent work, painted with acrylic on aluminium. The work is based on Rubens’ ‘The Descent from the Cross’ (1612-1614), a monumental work depicting Christ’s taking down from the cross. Rubens’ painting is the central panel of a larger triptych comprising ‘The Visitation’, and ‘The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple’, and is a biblical scene which has been used by artists from Fra Angelico to Caravaggio. In Rubens’ version, the figures in this central panel are arranged in a way that they appear connected by slight gestures of hands and by the characters unspoken gazes. The movement flows from the top right to the bottom left of the painting, and round again, resembling a constellation of stars.

The painting is both an image and a spectacle of signs that animate this scene and bring it to life. Anderson, in turn, while using Rubens as a starting point, takes the eclectic residue of other more recent painting imagery and language from 20th Century abstraction such as Cy Twombly’s ‘Chalkboard Paintings’, and uses these as components with which to re-enact Rubens’ painting and bring it to life. He cuts away at the aluminium, discarding the support of his work to both reveal and conceal the visual languages employed; making the remaining aluminium skeleton the overt linguistic utterance in his work, but also the suggestion of that which is implied by the omission of other discarded information. Rather than titling the resulting painting ‘The Descent from the Cross’ after Rubens, Anderson’s title ‘A Dog of Flanders’ derives from a Victorian children’s story by Ouida (the pseudonym opted by English novelist Maria Louise Ramé). The story relates the tale of Flemish boy named Nello and his dog, Patrasche. The story is set in Antwerp and has a melancholic tone as the boy and his dog attempt to witness Rubens’ painting, ‘The Descent from the Cross’ (which can be seen in ‘The Cathedral of Our Lady’ in Antwerp).

The connection and disconnection of elements – much like in an episode of Seinfeld – take us on a journey to further explore Anderson’s work. Other paintings are titled with oblique expressions which operate much like the blanks in a sentence filled in by ‘yada yada yada’; with information compressed with a specific/non-specific meaning; a pragmatic essence.

The car swirls through traffic speeding past the view. Some of it is recognisable – like in the movies – but most of is in new. What matters is the excitement, the twists and turns and the mixture of confusion, memory and experience that this acceleration brings.

Juan Bolivar, May 2017

JGM Gallery