The motto on the Spanish flag, Plus Ultra, is associated with taking risks and the pursuit of excellence, ideals we typically now associate with Ad-Speak. Emily Segal, former member of the trend forecasting group K-Hole, has just published a biographical fiction, Mercury Retrograde, which has a lot to say about memes, “Gettiers” – “accidentally true justified belief” – and the “velocity” of taste. Her trick, when branding, is “creating patterns not repeating messages,” unsurprising given that ideologues are fundamentally dumb. Given that we all “mis-navigate, indulge ourselves, and err,” driven by “senselessness, whims,” “cognitive bias” is subsequently irrational, if not insane. In our hyper-connected-yet-radically-disconnected current moment, this mediatised environment has become a killing field.
It is within and against this context that Brett Shuman operates. His meticulous pencil crayon drawing – each an iconic or emblematic signage – when seen in clusters, as a polyptych, reminds us of a world overladen with dis-information. We cling to deranged and deranging signs – a barcode, a swastika, the kitsch beating heart of Jesus – without any capacity to filter the signage we ingest, like krill through the jaws of a whale. We need to slow down and cannot. We need to meditate but fail utterly.
“It seems kind of insane to think that letting the voices of the Internet scribble all over everything would be anything other than an endless mandala of swastikas and jizz.” Segal’s view is Shuman’s. What his polyptychs tell us is that the information we ingest and excrete is illogical, highly emotive, extreme. The polyptychs are a juxtaposition of jarring elements. Collage? Certainly. But Max Ernst provides a sharper, more twisted rendition – “the exploitation of the chance meeting of two remote realities on a plane unsuitable to them.” Shuman’s sequencing of images is deliberately deranging. One realises, when looking, that perception, while it always requires context, makes no intrinsic sense. Nothing, in fact, is ever objectively true, let alone sane. In response to our persistent belief in facts – some or other Absolute – Nietzsche proffers the elegant counter: “It is improbable that you are not mistaken: but why insist upon the truth?” Yet it is precisely ‘Truth’ or rather, senseless cognitive bias, that defines the cultish, populist, Group-Think of crowds. Trumpism is an obvious example, but this disposition is everywhere, and everywhere disturbing.
Shuman is not endorsing this mania but breaking it down. His strategy is graphically antagonistic. His is a refusal to believe in a world of singularities. He accepts that visuality, like language, is a “mobile army of metaphors,” and, thus, a simulacral juxtaposition of likes, a perceptual dissonance, a break-up and breakdown of integrity, a woeful embrace of some schizophrenic mania – a non-equivalence of seeming equivalencies – that compels us to rethink what we think we are looking at and how we frame the world. Nietzsche declares the written word metonymic, anthropomorphic, “in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to people.” Truths are illusions, Nietzsche concludes. Nothing is ever firm, despite our avid belief in the contrary.
“Philosophers are no better than cunning pleaders for their prejudices, sly spokesmen for their ideas which they baptise ‘truths,'” Sue Prideaux remarks in her sparkling biography on Nietzsche, I am Dynamite. Shuman shares this suspicion. His artworks are made of deliberately jarring juxtapositions, strange conspiratorial conflations, which compel the viewer to concur that, yes, this is what the world is made of, why and how it makes sense. And why that purported sense is dangerously illusory.
Ours, Paul Virilio reminds us, is a world defined by speed – dromology. The saccadic rhythm of perception, unbeknownst to us, is now on steroids. We digest data with an inhuman rapidity and ease. Then again, we absorb nothing at all. What we see, we see at the limit of our exhausted powers. In other words, we no longer see anything. This is Shuman’s point. By deliberately thrusting a discordant combination of elements in front of us, he witheringly reminds us of the paucity of our sight, and insight.
In a gallery or museum, how long do we linger in front of a painting? “10 seconds? Thirty? Two whole minutes?” In Keeping an Eye Open, Julian Barnes gets to the crux. Attending a blockbuster show comprising 300 works, time is stripped away by the compulsion to see everything, knowing that this avaricious desire amounts to barely seeing anything at all. We are, says Barnes, seduced and destroyed by “the elephantiasis of exhibitions.” Now multiply this a gazillion times, and we arrive at the insanity of our mediatised world.
A drawing by Shuman displays a stocky angel beside a malevolent dog. In another, we see a steamship alongside a fan. Equivalency is suggested. But it is also arrested. For what we do, in seeking to make sense of these juxtapositions, is render the world metaphorical. We equate the unequal. This is Nietzsche’s beef with “Platonic solids.” The act of making sense is the futile defiance of non-sense. We mistake shadow-play for ‘truth.’ Nietzsche goes on to challenge the Cartesian cogito – I think therefore I am – with the following counter – thinking is the condition, the ‘I’ the conditioned. “In that case, ‘I’ would be a synthesis that only gets produced through thought itself.”
This, I think, is the foundation of Shuman’s visual language. It is the arbitrariness of signs that matters, not our consolatory resolution thereof. An electric chair, constellation of lines and points, Marilyn Monroe’s wind-hoicked skirt, a rabid lascivious bugs bunny, the letter X, Christ’s radiant heart – what are we to make of this sequence? Is it, in fact, a sequence? A ‘stream of consciousness’ which ushered forth modernity? Whichever way we grasp this iconic array, what we cannot refute is our desire to resolve the riddle. Ours is a compulsion to rationalise – especially when we cannot and are, in fact, incapable of doing so. Sense will be made. That sense, however, is perforce delusional and, worse, conspiratorial. In fact, it is an emotional, rather than rational act that conspires to find sense. This is because, today, it is feeling that drives us; feeling is the axis of truth. Ours is a world driven by deranging certainties. The resurgence of fascism is no accident. Like all mirthless absolutes, it requires our submission. Unsurprisingly, this submission is connected to the media which, in today’s saturated world, is the engine room of ‘fake news,’ falsity – lies. This is Shuman’s realisation, the basis for his art. Everything is objectifiable, everything intrinsically meaningless. In his world death meets a bullseye, substance is perpetually cancelled, faith is a curio, sex – the libidinal – cartoonish.
In another jarring work by Shuman a portrait appears to be that of Mona Lisa, but it’s not, it is a fallible memory of a painting of a woman – Giaconda – which has become more famous than any other. It is, or so we are told, a transcendent sign. For Shuman, however, she is a sign amongst many – a perceptual fragment in a deluge. For what Shuman’s sequence of images does is level the playing field. Mona Lisa becomes just another graphic, a barcode, as sublime as an image of a bull, as menacing as a swastika, as puerile as mickey mouse, as cloyingly sweet, as under-nourishing, as indigestible as any other image which, deludedly, we believe we have absorbed.
Meaninglessness is not a horror story. It is a fact. In today’s world, nothing coheres; it is not meant to. Conspiracy – “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful” – defines the zeitgeist of an age that has utterly lost its fulcrum, anchor, ground. This is why Brett Shuman makes his deceptively meaningful yet utterly incoherent constellations. While risibly iconic, with a great debt owed to Pop Art – the definitive aesthetic of this post-industrial, design-driven, digitised world – Shuman’s art not only pays the debt to Pop, but reminds of its metastasized inflation, its grotesque superfluity. His is a world without end, without beginning, the sum of a fleetingly arrested mania – Plus Ultra – reconceived with the aid of a lowly analogue aid, the pencil crayon.