On Arka; Intro and essay by Iris Aspinall Priest
'The print is a silent witness. Whether deliberate, as with a constructed print, or involuntary (a fingerprint, the impression left on a pillow in the morning), a print is always the tangible evidence left from a past action, now gone. It seems significant therefore that Ben Jeans Houghton's new works in Lithography were germinated by a double absence. First of all, by his discovery of a discarded collection of medical illustrations (the author absent or gone), and secondly, by the subject matter of these illustrations: cadavers in the Newcastle University morgue (the body without the presence of self).
The atmospheric virtue of this series of prints doesn't just lie in the myth of their origins however, but in their sublime and delicate rendering. The Series begins as a literal, figurative transcription from the found illustrations and original cadavers which Jeans Houghton visited in the Morgue. Then with the idiosyncratic trepidation and wonder of an artist exploring his subject on the edge of discovery, Jeans Houghton's images become increasingly volatile. The recognisable, figurative human elements (simultaneously beautiful and horrible) rupture and destabilise as the images become permeated with the mists of the unknown, and the imaginary.
While the series begins as a witness to real death, these prints do not depict fear or explicit horror but instead they speak of a latent divine, and the corporeal, which exists at the border of ourselves, our imagination, and non-existence.'
What's in a name?
If we were to trace the etymological roots of the title On Arka we may be led to believe that it belongs to two (diametrically opposed but simultaneous) modes of being. The 'ARK' (minus the 'A') is a concrete noun ascribed to a place of refuge or security. It resonates to the biblical portrayal of Noah's Ark, the boat built by Noah to preserve himself, his family and two of every animal from the floods (Genesis 6:19). Or the mythical Ark of the covenant, the vessel said to have been constructed after the commandment of God, as a container for the Stone Tablets onto which Moses carved the ten commandments (Exodus 25:10). But ARKA does not belong to the concrete, nor the figurative. While it acknowledges the parallels, the insertion of the abstracting 'A', ruptures the implicit meaning, making the title ambiguous and metaphysical. It is important to consider because the poetic title of the show prefigures the work which embodies a similar duality; a dialectic of infinite possibilities oscillating between the literal and the metaphorical, flux and inertia, and between existence and oblivion.
Reproduction, Reduplication, and Death
Print is a tool for the dissemination of ideas and evocation of desires. Our day-to-day lives are saturated with printed information from packaging to magazines and newspapers. In the miasma of contemporary advertising, bodies are increasingly aestheticised and disembodied. Put into operation for the fashion industry and advertising, the body and it's parts are fragmented, replicated, and exteriorised, becoming empty vessels for the projection of consumer desires and aspirations. Disconnected from the internalised life or identity, the operation of scopophilic desire is endlessly ignited, and gratified, through the consummation of these dead images (as ceaseless, flawless substitutes for reality). In Jeans Houghton's crucible of the remembered, imagined and appropriated, fragments of this legacy float to the surface through his exquisitely rendered mouths and tongues (reminiscent of the alluring mouth of any Vogue cover model). But here these effigies are not left to exist as pure ornamentation, but are suffused with the repugnance of a very physical orality. Freud's theory of the first stage of psycho-sexual development implicates the mouth of the infant (who suckles, bites and swallows) as the first source of pleasure and nourishment but also, through denial, as the first source of longing and fixation. Whether we choose to take Freud's interpretation seriously or not, the mouth is certainly poignant as the primary organ at the border of ourselves. Its use is intermingled with ingestion (food and air), expulsion (language, breath and vomit) and pleasure (taste, kissing, sex). It is interesting to observe that, in the initial stages of this edition of prints, it is the mouth of the remembered corpse where the first distortions, and manifestations of the fantastical take place. These mouths and tongues teeter on the brink of sensuality and oblivion. They are as corporeal as they are divine, becoming increasingly ruptured and volatilized by the devouring haze of the unknown.
A Sculptor who draws
On a cold, February morning, in a warm and orderly print studio, Ben Jeans Houghton, examining the prints before being “chopped”, commented jokingly “I think these drawings are about how much I love sculpture”. But perhaps this was more than a joke. His use of form and line to manipulate the illusory space of the drawing by rendering it variously dense, vaporous or visceral, readily draws parallels to the sculptural act of moulding or chiselling an object from a formless lump of matter. Even the lexis of 'space', 'dense' and 'visceral' is more commonly associated with the 3 Dimensional properties of objects.* Unlike sculpture, however, these drawings do not have to obey the laws of gravity, time, or the possible. They are transitive pieces, oscillating between existence and non-existence, and occupying a simultaneity of tenses; the past tense (through the artist's remembering and appropriation from former styles), the present tense (the figurative object which is perceived as existing in reality), and the future tense (manifest in the elements of the imaginary, the unknown and the potential). In contrast we tend to experience sculpture, and the 3 Dimensional world, predominantly in the perfect present tense. That is, as existing at the moment of physical encounter.
Like a contemporary Vanitas, suffused with rapture and fantasy, these drawings instantiate the tenses of past/present/future and the dichotomies of existence/ non-existence. They are drawings of flux, gesturally they are in flux and which take place on the liminal threshold between observation (knowing) and imagination (oblivion). Carefully, deftly, these drawings embody all these contradictions to reflect the artists' gaze, and imagination, operating on the edge of understanding his subject: a corpse in the morgue (both real and remembered). With wonder and idiosyncratic honesty, Ben Jeans Houghton has epitomized a thing which is both familiar and beyond comprehension, and which undermines our capacity to categorize and understand through its ambiguous state of real nothingness.
*Indeed, the process of Lithography on Limestone involves the application of a chemical etch which transforms the drawing into a 3 Dimensional relief for printing.
Iris Aspinall Priest Is an Artist and Writer currently based in Newcastle.