“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Road.
Some time ago The Washington Post ran a series of features on the activities of former US Vice President Dick Cheney. It revealed a world of shadows, of clearly nefarious acts cloaked under the dense cloth of the American flag. The Post left the feature up on-line for months on end, as though to remind the public that things are not always as they may seem.
Of course it has always been one of the roles of the media to act as watchdog, to delve into the shadows. But just as often it is the media itself that helps to create these shadows, all too often becoming the hapless tool of the powers that be.
Cutting into the shadows has become Neil Haddon’s form of reportage. Haddon steals imagery from local media, pillaging the newspapers and nightly news for fodder. Then he applies the shadows, dark, Stygian layers of black gloss and layer upon layer the daily news is cast into inky oblivion. Then he goes looking for the truth.
Haddon has noted that the fact that his media sources are local is of considerable import. But, such is the chain of power that, in mysterious ways, the actions of an American Vice President can filter down the chain and effect a timber mill in Hobart or the export of apples from Launceston.
Thus when Haddon begins the laborious task of tearing away the shadows he reveals another truth; an alternate world of irradiated plants and deformed insects. In Broken (Blue Plant) two dark figures tend to an eerily glowing grass-like plant. Their faces are obscured in what may be protective headgear. The sky behind them is dark with ominous and unnatural storm clouds. Haddon may have sourced his image from the local media, perhaps a local politician planting a ceremonial tree. But this mundane event has been viewed from an alternate dimension – one where a single irradiated plant may represent human survival.
But stop and consider. Is this not what happens every day? Our news is a mediated image – our televisions and newspapers are calibrated by reporters, editors and, ultimately, proprietors. Our news is selected for us by the whims of such folk as Rupert Murdoch who usually opts to tell us that a pimple on a footballers forehead is of vastly greater significance than the destruction of the entire Amazonian rainforest. In many ways our everyday reality is a construct, not dissimilar to that envisaged in The Matrix films.
Haddon isn’t having it.
If there is a somewhat apocalyptic intensity to Haddon’s works that is not surprising. We live in apocalyptic times, an era of information deluge and misinformation. Inevitably the end times are delivered by a guru or prophet or they a splashed through the mass media. In Haddon’s world dark gurus trudge through the darkness, rendered mute. Information is shredded before it can be disseminated. ‘Real’ information is made obscure. Possible warnings of this strange future are relegated to abstractions
With the plant-life irradiated, the insects that dwell upon them have evolved to contend with a new environment. In Haddon’s Counter Image series taxonomy and nomenclature have been thrown into an evolutionary blender. The macroscopic, precise detail of amateur entomological photography has been replaced with an equally precise jewel-like painted indulgence of stains and spills. They glow like little scarabs, scuttling like venomous jewelry and spinning webs of the finest titanium.
A major part of the sense of dislocation that Haddon achieves is in his materiality. In his larger works Haddon is a hobbyists’ worst nightmare. His tools and materials are the crassest available; a Makita sander and Dulux Jet Black enamel. By building up the high gloss surface and cutting back into it, leaving visceral trails in his wake, Haddon achieves a shift in perception. His mundane source material, everyday localised news events, take on an uncanny urgency. They become high-tech bulletins of the utmost import.
Bec Tudor, writing in Artlink magazine on Haddon’s 2007 show, stated accurately that: “These paintings are suspended, like remnant after-images burned onto the retina, in a transient zone of perception characterised by a lack of information. Like waiting for your eyes to adjust to the dark, experiencing these luscious paintings is to be stranded on the brink of realisation.”
That brink is where we are left, knowing that these are grave messages of import, but uncertain what to do with the information given. As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, something has happened to our world, but we are left without literal explanations. Haddon’s rich blacks, both glossy and scarred, create a theatrical backdrop for his glowing plants. In Guru (Red Plant) Haddon’s flora takes on a vampiric scarlet hue. In Shredder (orange) a dark, Orwellian figure oversees the destruction of documentation glowing with a warning orange, highlighting its now redundant urgency. In his minimalist Shred works the news of our fate is rendered unreadable, “escaped into the recycling bin of fragmented abstraction,” as Haddon puts it. Referring in part to the Tasmanian Government’s controversial Shreddergate affair, these image stand in as a stark reminder of governmental control of information; they are the blank moments on the Watergate tapes and the Vatican’s hidden pages of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But even if Haddon put them back together, would they make sense? Are they even the relics of the same document? And even if they were coherently reconstructed what would they tell us? Perhaps no more than the planting of a sapling at the inauguration of a new council toilet block. But even that might be rendered in hidden code.
Haddon’s palette is clearly reductive. His surfaces are built up and then slashed down. He sources his images from small, localised and largely harmless events, but as with the Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory, these seemingly inconsequential moments take on ominous portent. Our everyday activities somehow triggering far more momentous events. Haddon seems to be reminding us that our casual shoulder-shrugging attitude to the world around us, our oblivious devil-may-care attitude to our environment will, one day, come back to haunt us.
Ashley Crawford, 2011
It is difficult, in 2007, to recall the paranoic shock inspired by the first episodes of Chris Carter’s The X-Files. The show first appeared in 1993 and, via brilliant marketing such catch phrases as “The Truth Is Out There,” “Trust No One,” and “I Want to Believe” became part of the Western lexicon. The show seemed to spring from nowhere, yet was instantly recognisable. In the earliest episodes it was as though we were capturing an alternate reality via peripheral vision, seeing something emerge from the shadows. All too many came to believe that this was documentary rather than fiction, that there truly was a “shadow government” in control.
Shadows pervade Neil Haddon’s world. The term “glossy shadows” makes little sense, but here they are. Gloss reflects, shadow absorbs. For a painting to do both at once is more than a little disconcerting…. And then there is the subject matter. Haddon’s world could be any number of things. Like a Rorschach test, figurative definitions shift according the viewer. They could be alien nightclubs, masked ninjas, viral growths. There could be references to Mary Magdalene (The Anecdote) or Ridley Scott’s film Alien (Chinese). As always, the human mind grasps for something recognisable – upon returning home at night we reach for a light switch that we’ve used for over a decade, but suddenly it is no longer there, and in the dark our eyes strain for something recognisable, something to excuse this mysterious loss, this suddenly monstrous travesty of normality.
Haddon makes use of the term ‘Purblind’ which can be used to describe the effect on the eyes when walking into a darkened room from a bright exterior. The momentary and decidedly unnerving loss of vision fades as the eyes become accustomed to the difference in light, but the shock of momentary loss of sight lives on, briefly but interminably. In our media-saturated world “reality” has become a porous concept. Haddon’s images could be as banal as an iPod commercial where masked youths dance to imagined pink strobe lights – a painting such as Burn is dystopian disco at its height. At the same time, as William Gibson has elucidated in his latest novel, Spook Country, the iPod is also an ideal way to trade in information – or mis-information – transfer. Indeed, ideal for a “shadow government.”
In Haddon’s work the shifts in tonality and texture add to this information corruption. His surfaces leap from matt to gloss, from finely finished to abrasive, figurative to abstract, restlessly shifting and rarely settling. This movement is abetted by Haddon’s choice of materials, painted, as they are, with high gloss household enamel paint on the harsh and unforgiving surface of aluminium, a material as cold as the cathode ray reflecting the nightly news. Indeed, ‘the news’ infuses these paintings like a virulent contagion. In the day and age of genetically modified – or mutated – crops, paintings such as Stranded (seed) and Stranded (poppy) take on an unerring significance. Where once such concepts were the stuff of science fiction, today they are a harsh reality. But with his strange use of tonality and texture Haddon takes such subjects full circle, re-infusing a sense of unreality and, in the process, plays with the hierarchy of modernist painting; geometric abstraction in seed, action painting in poppy.
Haddon reinterprets mass media, carving it back, leaving only a minimal residue and honing in on the faint sense of dread that media-saturated, globalised world inspires. The Trouble is authority at its worst, a minimalised silhouette that evokes an Orwellian paranoia or the sense of impotence such a figure imposes in the books of Philip K. Dick. Indeed, the figure in Stranded (poppy), or in The Anecdote, seem to have slid from the pages of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.
In the day and age of watching movies on an iPod, staring at the ridiculous mediocrity of most blogs, gazing blindly at televised nonsense, we are told that obesity is something of a problem. The slouched figure in Lumpen No.1 is clearly the victim of information overload. Whether these are control panels or entertainment portals, they have done their job, rotting the viewers brain to the point of inertia. Even a televised bull-fight stops mid-stream, captured with a strange stillness, the surreal dual horns about to impale the central figure in Bull are caught with a painterly pause button, the toreador flickering in the haze of virtual reality.
These are images of today stranded in another dimension. Pared back from both the banality and the potency of media-filtered ‘reality’ we are indeed purblind, encountering the shock of the real filtered through Haddon’s minimalised mayhem
Ashley Crawford, 2008
Criterion Gallery, 12 Criterion Street Hobart
22 March – 21 April 2007
Artlink, Bec Tudor
Neil Haddon’s solo exhibition Stranded is filled with anti-portraits of lone beings in uncertain and abstracted space. The blacked-out silhouettes that appear throughout this body of paintings are larger than life-size, and their familiar poses might have been taken directly from snapshots or shadows, yet they lack identifying particularity. While Haddon’s choice of both subject matter and materials - household enamel paint on aluminium - are characteristically mundane, the effect of their combination is calculated and disquieting. Shadows scorched against voids of unnaturally bright orange, pink and yellow evoke post-apocalyptic and even sci-fi scenarios.
Abominable is an image of endurance against unseen physical and/or psychological forces. A hunched man, depicted from knees up, shines ominously in gloss black. His posture is that of someone caught in action, his left arm hangs out from his body as though he is shifting weight and there is something confrontational and defiant about this stance. He is a monster - miserable, rejected, pathetic, possibly angry and dangerous. Before him stretches an ambiguous landscape, a patchy and vaguely grid-like texture of matt black worn away to reveal patches of pale yellow that can be imagined as forest, city or crowd.
Haddon constantly manipulates light across his surfaces through the juxtaposition of matt and high-gloss finish paint. For example, the technique of positioning matt black over gloss black (and vice versa) that is repeated throughout this body of work visually flips positive and negative space as the layers compete for primacy. Yet simultaneously, from other angles it is impossible to perceive a distinction between them. In this way layers of texture and imagery reveal and conceal themselves in paintings such as Young Man, where the pseudo-military silhouette of a male in hat and jacket sits behind a veil of cloud-like forms in dark glossy green. This topmost layer of the painting operates like camouflage print, interrupting form and outline so that the figure is obscured.
Though Haddon’s palate is dominated by black, a limited range of garish colours accentuates these works. His combinations of tones - cream, eggshell blue and brown for example – banded in concentric rings to create globular forms over a number of the silhouettes possess 1970s associations. There is a resonance with the genre of psychedelic art here, and many of Haddon’s scenes can certainly be interpreted as depictions of altered states of reality.
Vestigial (40), one of the show’s larger works at 180cm by 160cm, depicts a full frontal male silhouette leaning back, arms by his side, legs apart, his head exploding into an inkblot-like blob. Orange, cream and yellow florets bloom behind his neck and shoulders like wings, or an art nouveau inspired vision of his aura. This could be someone on a dance floor, utterly absorbed in their headspace and sensations, frozen in the strobe light. The background is a distressed dark surface through which warm spots of light glow and, as with all these paintings, the lack of context and the stylisation of central subject manifests a sense of isolation, dislocation or at very least, introversion.
The figure has not featured highly in Haddon’s practice to date yet all but one painting in Stranded centres on a human protagonist. However, distortion and stylisation dehumanise these subjects, which are completely resistant to interrogation and therefore empathy. Nevertheless, despite the coolness of Haddon’s aesthetic this work is an effective exploration of a subjective and inherently experiential phenomenon. The exhibition notes discuss ‘purblindness’, the partial loss of vision that results from moving from a space of low light into one of excessive light. These paintings are suspended, like remnant after-images burned onto the retina, in a transient zone of perception characterised by a lack of information. Like waiting for your eyes to adjust to the dark, experiencing these luscious paintings is to be stranded on the brink of realisation.
Copyright Artlink and Bec Tudor