The most obvious place for me to begin responding to the DOLPH brief was its description of artists’ thoughts as notes to self. I’ve been working on an ongoing series of drawings with the same collective title since 2009. They now number more than 300, all the same size (A4) and all started life as a pad of paper kept on my desk, upon which I regularly scrawl notes and reminders. DOLPH seemed to be asking me to expose the working process, showing the ideas that sometimes crystallise into finished pieces. I keep returning to my own Notes to Self series because it offers me a way to become unstuck with bigger works, to think through drawing. This isn’t to say that these works normally become larger, more finished pieces. It’s rather the case that the act of making them loosens something up in my brain and permits me to process more difficult decisions while working on something small and manageable. The fact that the paper is already partially covered with notes gives me something to respond to in making a drawing – sometimes as a reply to an earlier message written there, other times connected to its formal attributes. I have long enjoyed working collaboratively with other artists, and think of these Notes to Self as collaborations with a earlier version of myself.
For this exhibition I started with three Notes to Self drawings from 2013. Each of them features a screen-print of what appears to be a dancing, drunken, smartphone. The phone is dancing with things that happened to be lying on my desk at the time – an inhaler, a printed skeleton from a record cover I was working on, the balancing stones from a wellness leaflet that had come through the junk mail. The point was that I didn’t have to look far for the compositional elements in these drawings. Everything I needed was already surrounding me. The phone itself started life as a 35 mm slide – an advert from a 1950’s climbing magazine also on my table.
I decided that for once I would use these drawings as a starting point for larger works, some monumental in scale. I like collecting the junk that comes into my studio on a regular basis – the flyers, the old books and magazines people leave out in boxes by their front door for passers-by to take, the notices for missing pets I sometimes peel off lamp-posts. Despite having lived there for over a decade Berlin is still primarily a visual city for me. I now understand the signs and advertisements that once were little more than shape and colour, but it’s still as easy to zone out from the information being relayed. And that ignorance is, of course, a form of bliss. This is reflected in Vermisst, the only painting in the show. It’s an amalgamation of two different handmade street signs appealing for help in recovering a missing teddy. The original signs were the same scale as my Notes to Self drawings, and very similar in structure. The main difference of course being that they had been made by someone else. Rain had rendered the inkjet print and felt pen text unintelligible. For me it had become a crosshatch of unintentional painterly gesture, which I wanted to translate into oil on canvas. The plan was to make a large abstract painting using a source material whose message had once been as clear as possible.
The three dancing phone drawings made me want to explore repetition more. Repetition for me suggests print, and so I set about making a series of repeat patterns using the notes, the phone cartoon, and photographs taken in the neighbourhood with own phone. I wanted the photos to be as mundane as possible, so I used motifs I could find right outside the front door, such as bike locks, lying abandoned on the floor locked around posts. I took a photo of a brick wall but mistakenly focused on the background. The images are like a series of accidents. Translating these into large silkscreen prints also comes with its own series of accidents. It’s very hard to keep track of where you are printing when working with 4x3 metres on a table, as quickly as possible so the paint doesn’t dry in the screen. One mistake knocks out the whole idea of a repeat, then one has to quickly improvise to get things back on track. Such imperfections often make a more interesting image.
In the end I also made a couple of Notes to Self based on motifs in the pattern prints. So the notes informed the bigger works informed the notes. The whole exhibition is intended to show how work springs from the detritus that surrounds us, shifting into something else en route, and sometimes returning to the original form of notes on paper. I suppose it illustrates what so often happens in the studio, which is an ongoing diaogue with oneself.
Paul McDevitt 2017