Untiled (rods and cones)

Alice Hattrick
Written to accompany Foreplay: Tom Owen

Installation view, Foreplay: Tom Owen, Chandelier Projects

“It’s like painting, just hard,” Tom Owen said the first time we met. His paintings are hollow casts, and, unlike stretched canvases, they are hard, sharp-edged objects. Jesmonite is a plastic-based plaster, a durable material often used for casting architectural mouldings or sculpture – tougher than plaster of paris. They are also hard because the process is complex, based on precise mixtures of powder and liquid, retarders and thickening agent. The jesmonite paintings have the dimensions of portrait paintings, qualities associated with monoprint techniques, and the hollow solidity of cast objects.

The weight of the panels, their perceived hardness, their complexity, is undermined by a single drawing, repeated mechanically, which spreads meme-like over single panels and whole series. The doodle – a head with a nest of curly hair in a mess of lines – is mirrored to make a conjoined twin, and repeated, over and again, each time the same. Owen showed me the original, drawn in what looks like biro on an A3 sheet. It is pathetic and throw-away, “horribly familiar,” and yet it is everywhere. The works he made at the Royal Academy looked like they were masked by smoke screens, as if all the pink and white was hiding the schizoid-doodles proliferating underneath, unseen. For these recent works personal language is exposed, multiplying with relish – the screen has infected the studio. No one would draw the same doodle this many times.

Oil, acrylic, jesmonite
65.5 x 51.5cm

Everything is a surface and a kind of matter that absorbs and resists – jesmonite absorbs pigment as it dries. Owen has installed a wall of plasterboard, coloured pink to tell you it’s fire resistant. The plasterboard is as vulnerable as the blankets or the jesmonite panels – all absorb and resist, collect and retain. For his 2014 show at RH Contemporary Art in New York, Owen hung soundproofing blankets. They are soft, unlike jesmonite, and portable, reusable. Hung vertical, they behaved as walls, but they could easily wrap around something or someone. The blankets are designed to absorb sound in the way jesmonite absorbs pigment, but Owen’s screen treats them as another surface for the doodle to contaminate. Across the flame- resistant plasterboard, the drawing proliferates mechanically – barely visible, over-familiar and insistent.

Exhausting an image through repetition feels like a strategy of resistance against monotony, like watching white noise. White noise is an absence and an overload, “too much” and “not enough” information - certainly not nothing. As signal it is random but as sound it is a constant hum, what Yve Lomax has called “the sound of a wall of indistinguishable sounds; a wall of sound that sounds blank.” Listen to what is relegated to the background, she instructs, in Sounding the Event. She writes after Michel Serres: “the restlessness of the world; the agitation that lies at the bottom of the world; the turbulence that turns the world; the boundless sounds of the world as it perturbs, disturbs and excites itself as it ceaselessly becomes and comes undone.” It’s as if Serres is wishing her to hear the noise that she never stops hearing - the noise that we are all immersed in, the hum between two sides of an argument, two voices, two channels. Sometimes I listen to the sound of my headphones jacked into the computer when I want to concentrate (some people use white noise simulator apps to help them focus on a task or go to sleep - to lose the awareness of one’s self that prevents sleep). I can hear messages being sent back and forth, the sound of scanning, of waiting for something to happen. In silence I am aware of myself. The noise is a ground from which images and objects, like thoughts, might appear with more clarity.

Tom Owen
Untitled (rods and cones)
Oil and beeswax on linen
50 x 40cm

In Don Delillo’s White Noise an “airborne toxic event” spreads overhead as anxiety burns in the people below (the protagonist and his wife are preoccupied with their own deaths). In the book, the rationalised ideology associated with commercial television and advertising is a kind of white noise that has flooded the world, screening out other sounds that are hard to bear. The cloud itself is unfathomable, packed with “chlorides, benzines, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content.” Owen’s viral doodle, read as personal, likeable, funny, and mechanically reproduced, is a smoke signal, a warning - the anxiety that burns beneath the cloud is based not on an overwhelming fear of death but of detachment, or not feeling absorbed.

Owen has been pulling up layers of paint and varnish and old wood from the studio floor. The amount of material extracted – absorbed by the jesmonite and given up by the building – depends on how long he leaves the jesmonite. One of them wasn’t dry enough to hold its own skin on. It exposes its own innards: a web of fibreglass to strengthen the jesmonite, to make it harder. The extractive gesture is slight – It has minimal impact on the floor – but violent. As a material, the plastic-y plaster absorbs paint but it also absorbs the studio. The new object is one made of floor that nonetheless doesn’t behave as floor. Upended, displayed, the floor is now an archeological prize, presented in fake bamboo frames. As prints of the studio, matter lost to jesmonite, neither floor nor wall, they are already artificial – curtailed by their own dimensions.

Extraction leaves a mark, evidence of absorption and repulsion. All the works in the gallery have been pulled from the studio, unwillingly extracted. But what is left behind? – That wall of sound, that constant din of the in-between, of waiting and willing something else to emerge.

Alice Hattrick is a writer and producer based in London. She co- produces CAR, a podcast about art and ideas.