Laith McGregor: S-O-M-E-O-N-E (Melbourne: Perimeter Editions, 2016).
I came to Laith McGregor’s work in 2008, when we chose him for The New Fresh Cut, a new-artists show at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. He was making elegant ballpoint-pen drawings of absurdly bearded men. Beards are a longstanding signifier of male authority and male vanity. In recent years, hipsters have embraced them, and McGregor’s exaggerations engage and caricature the fashion. His examples range from dandy to hippie to trucker—from ‘the unbridled masculinity of a full naval beard’ to ‘the narcissism of the goatee’.1 His beards are so lush that they engulf their owners. Sometimes they suggest huge hairy testicles onto which men’s heads and feet have been appended, almost as if an afterthought. In this, his images recall earlier caricatures of male fashion victims (whose impractical style made everyday life difficult) and of priapic men (whose engorged member-ship literally got in their way).
McGregor does many things with his big-beard idea. Beards are shared by Victorian gentlemen (Hex 2008), by a Victorian gentleman and a turbaned Middle Eastern one (Untitled 2008), and by a modern man and an ape (I’m Not Here 2008), each time suggesting what they have in common. Beards evolve into gems (Untitled 2008). They form patterns: here, a willow pattern (Dreamin’ About a Place I’ll Never See 2007); there, Frank-Stellaesque geometry (Black Lagoon Shining 2009). Some blimp-like beards bear slogans: ‘Oldman Take a Look at My Life I’m A Lot Like You’ (Young 2008), or, the more surreal, ‘Like One Hundred Whales through Water’ (100 Whales 2008). Sometimes the beards are not drawn in, but left blank, perhaps implying that beards themselves are a form of erasure (Untitled (Swami) 2011).
Beards are intrinsically duplicitous—closeted gay guys treat women as ‘beards’, to conceal their hearts’ desires. McGregor’s beard works are certainly ambiguous. His daggy blue biro and his whimsical metaphors operate in counterpoint, playing on the way beards symbolise both ‘masculine’ authority and ‘feminine’ preening. His beards could be read as signs of excessive masculinity or as symptoms of overcompensation for its lack. McGregor’s beards are also about drawing itself. Drawing a beard over acres of paper is akin to growing one—it takes time. McGregor makes this explicit in two performances for video. In Maturing (2007), he takes a biro and draws hairs onto his boyishly bare face, until it is obscured. In Matured (2009), he shaves off a real beard, then sticks the hair back onto his face.
When an artist intrigues me, I want to get to the bottom of their project, to find some underlying coherence. McGregor presented a challenge. So much of the work was about the beard, and, with it, masculinity and duplicity. The beard seemed to offer a through line—at least, I wanted it to—but the upshot was unclear. With their René-Magritte-like image play, some works offered succinct paradoxes centred on the beard and appeared to elaborate on one another; others struck me as cul-de-sacs and red herrings. Then, other works, produced at the same time, had nothing to do with ‘the beard’ at all. For each work that made sense to me, another made no sense, sending me off in an unexpected direction, or no direction at all. Did that experience indicate the limitations of the work, or, rather, the limitations of my expectations? I wasn’t sure.
Then, just as I imagined some interpretive resolution was around the corner, McGregor shifted gear. In 2011, he unveiled a major new work that took a different route. At Melbourne’s West Space, he presented a big drawing on a functioning ping-pong table. He’d made the drawing over the course of a year, during a residency at Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary. One side is dominated by a larger-than-life self portrait, the other by a matching ape face—both hirsute. The ape’s eyes are open but blank; McGregor’s are covered with bottle tops, like coins left on the eyes of a corpse to pay the ferryman. Perhaps it had something to do with evolution. McGregor filled in the surrounding spaces with random images and annotations, adding a bit each day, using a variety of styles and drawing tools, until he’d finally consumed the available space. While the beard works tease out visual paradoxes and non sequiturs, Pong-Ping Paradise is a mountain of minutiae (albeit a stylish one), a hoarding.
Providing bats and balls, McGregor invites viewers to enjoy his handiwork while playing the game. Players (viewers) have to take sides—ape or man? Pong-Ping Paradise cross-references distinct activities—making the drawing, viewing the drawing, playing the game—and the times they take. The all-over quality of the drawing is linked to the back-and-forth of the game, the bouncing ball making its own links. The work echoes Marcel Duchamp’s vandalistic idea of a ‘reverse readymade’—that is, deploying an artwork for some non-art purpose (‘use a Rembrandt as an ironing board’)—and Erik Satie’s ambient ‘furniture music’ (not wanting his audience to pay so much attention). But, really, why put in all this effort, add in all this detail, only then to ask us to neglect it?
How should we characterise McGregor’s compulsive drawing? It could be ‘graphomania’, a mental condition whose sufferers write rambling nonsense (it’s a key genre of outsider art). However, I prefer to think of McGregor not as deranged but as wayward. In New Zealand, we have another term—‘pencil-case art’. It refers to the way errant school boys once customised their pencil cases, defacing them with images and texts, accumulated with no overall plan, until the entire surface is full. Skilful renderings, obscene caricatures, and rock-band mastheads clash and coalesce. Pencil-case art is associated with McGregor’s preferred medium, the ballpoint pen—the standard-issue biro with which boys were expected to pursue their worthy studies. Uneraseable, unforgiving, its colour recalls blue tattoos, a more adult but equally wayward genre.
The Pong-Ping Paradise idea grew epic with S-O-M-E-O-N-E (2012). It’s the Sistine Chapel ceiling of pencil-case art. McGregor calls this four-by-one-and-a-half-metre drawing ‘a beast’. He worked on it for the best part of a year while travelling. He carried it, rolled up, from Melbourne to New York to Berlin to Barcelona (for a lengthy residency) to Bangkok to Bali and back to Melbourne again, adding to it almost daily. In the mornings he would work on it, then spend his afternoons and evenings engaged in flânerie, soaking up local colour, collecting images and texts to use the next day.
To anchor his composition, McGregor based sections on details from an already fragmented image—Pablo Picasso’s cubistic anti-war painting of 1937, Guernica. He chose it partly to acknowledge Spain, where he was doing his residency, and partly to reference the general political unrest then current in Spain and elsewhere. (Paradoxically, Guernica’s familiar disorder adds some coherence to McGregor’s work.) Apart from that, he had no preconceived ideas, no plan. He said he laid down ‘thoughts, ideas, dreams, sketches, ramblings, doodles, quotes, basically anything that came to me at that moment, without editing anything’.2 The beast grew organically, intuitively, aimlessly, like a beard. It’s a time capsule—a diary, a mind map, a brain dump. The medium description is telling: ‘pencil, fibre-tipped pen, ballpoint pen, adhesive tape, torn dollar note, stickers, stamp, and coffee on paper’.
Like Pong-Ping Paradise, S-O-M-E-O-N-E is exhibited horizontally, prone, on a table, so you can approach it from all sides, just as the artist did in making it. There’s no right way up, no correct orientation. This image miscellany is organised into cubist shards, with information packed tight into every nook and cranny, generating a faceted, jewel-like effect. You can pick through it for things you like (or don’t like), focusing on details, or you can stand back and enjoy the mosaic effect. S-O-M-E-O-N-E’s components may be random and sometimes vulgar, but its consistent density is easy on the eye.
McGregor characterises his work as ‘automatic drawing’, implying that it might betray some unconscious intent. And yet this drawing is less about trawling personal psychic depths than clearing the short-term memory buffer. Besides, there’s too much information, too much evidence, to meaningfully analyse. You can’t possibly read it all. What you pick out of the morass probably says as much about you as it does about the artist. McGregor himself can’t remember where half the stuff came from. Having forgotten it, he now approaches much of the material like us, as a stranger. The title reflects this, suggesting the work reflects not the artist specifically, but, more vaguely, ‘someone’.
There’s an anecdote behind it. McGregor remembers that, for a joke, his aunt called her dog Someone, transforming non-identity into a proper name. As a child, he called out for … ‘Someone!’
McGregor plays with ideas about identity. A big part of the human brain is dedicated to face recognition. We are primed to see faces in anything and everything—they call it pareidolia. A suite of ceramic sculptures McGregor made in 2013–4 exploits this. A glazed ceramic lump perched on an inverted glass bottle suggests a head (Semblance 2013). Depressions in other lumps suggest eyes (Nassau 2014) and eyes and a mouth (Istanbul 2014). Crude facial features are painted on a lump, combining sculptural and graphic cues for a head (Cote D’Azur 2013). A tiny, realistic, found head peeks out of an orifice in another half-baked head blob (Peekaboo 2013). My favourite work in the group, Woodsman (2013), could almost be a primitivist parody of Ah Xian—the Chinese-Australian artist famed for his porcelain portrait busts with miscellaneous decorative finishes. Here, the basic blob is covered with a regular blue-glazed pattern, suggesting an abstracted torrent of water. The pattern voids any sense of a head or a face, but McGregor inserts a pipe into the lump, forcing the issue. And there’s another twist: the pipe’s bowl is itself carved in the shape of head. So the primary, nondescript, abstracted blob head smokes a pipe, a secondary head, that is, paradoxically, more realistic, more plausible.
The pipes and hats that recur throughout McGregor’s work are nods to Magritte, but also to McGregor’s grandfathers—one a pipe smoker, the other a magician. The artist also fancies himself as something of a conjurer, playing his visual shell games with heads and faces. He has many more sculptures on this theme. He recycles slags of leftover clay into pipe-smoking gargoyle faces (Old Salt 2013). He adds glass eyes to a painter’s toolbox (The Painter 2014) and sticks a pipe into a plank of wood (Father Time 2014) to anthropmorphise them. He cuts circular eye holes in Balinese boat sails to suggest stylised faces (Untitled 2015). Etcetera.
McGregor traces his interest in fugitive, inchoate, distorted, lumpy faces back to his repeated childhood encounters with an apparition, an ‘imaginary friend’ he called Waterface. His face was always moving, morphing into different characters. To the young boy, it looked like moving water. Waterface was distinctive in having no distinguishing features; his unique identity consisted in not having one. In McGregor’s video Waterface (2009), we hear phonecalls he made with his mum and dad, where they recount their memories of the imaginary relationship. For the artist, Waterface ‘has become the ghost of everyone, in everyone, a figure who stands somewhere between the real and the subconscious’.3 Knowing his unknowable friend ‘forced him to question identity, masculinity, and the mask … the subconscious, notions of the self, and the complexities of what it means to be human’.4 McGregor sees his work as a search for Waterface, or for what this elusive figure meant to him at a young and tender age. But, perhaps, like most grail quests, it is more about the quest than the grail. It is less about finding Waterface than about what McGregor—and we—might learn along the way. Waterface is a MacGuffin.
While some of McGregor’s works summon faces out of next to nothing, others are concerned with disfiguring them—defacing. In a suite of prints from 2013, the artist subjected his own image to a variety of treatments. All ten prints are based on a single image, a pencil rendering of the artist, complete with a Jesus beard, made by a Bangkok street artist from a photo. McGregor riffed on this base image using a variety of graphic strategies and techniques. In Animal, his face is graffitied with classic humiliating appendages: a pipe, glasses, big ears, an old-lady necklace, and cleavage. In Heavy, it is veiled with a delicate tracery of fine blue lines, suggesting a thicket or a watery cataract, covering all but his eyes. In OK, the contraction ‘OK’ is written repeatedly over the face as a veil of language (but is it ‘OK’, or the opposite, ‘KO’, for knock-out?). These Days offers a misregistered colour-separated version of the image, perhaps suggesting that the artist is dazed (knocked out?) or tripping. In Rootdown, a sad-face emoticon is superimposed onto the artist’s face, sandwiching the crude ideogram and the fussy realistic rendering. Etcetera.
But what is the purpose of all this graphic malarkey, which goes everywhere and nowhere? Does it make anything of its ostensible subject, the artist? Are these self portraits or is the artist’s image just an excuse for graphic fun and games? Do we find McGregor in the initial image (made by another) or only in his corrections to and attacks upon it?
In those prints, McGregor took an image of himself and treated it differently, but, in a series of portraits from 2014–5, he takes images of different people and treats them similarly. McGregor engaged anonymous street artists—in Bangkok and beyond—to render mugshots of himself and his wife Kylee, and of their friends and various Australian art-world luminaries who had entered his studio life, including prominent collectors and a prominent art-museum director. The street artists improved on the original snaps, adding a bit of idealising glamour. An old trick. Although the original images are mediated through their faraway eyes, there is nothing exotic in the renderings—they are generic. They could have been produced anywhere.
Outsourcing the hard part, McGregor does the fun part. He goes to work on the images with pen, pencil, and eraser, adding veils of images and text, covering those poor street artists’ patient renderings with his own anarchic graffittos—more adolescent pencil-case art. He tacks on a Donald Duck head, Homer Simpson’s mouth, clown-makeup eyes, vampire fangs, Pinocchio’s nose, a snake’s forked tongue, angry puffs of smoke from the ears, tattoos, a nose drip and drool. He grafts a grimace from a Balinese mask onto a portrait of Melbourne collector Terry Wu. Plus there’s writing. McGregor adds slogans and gobbledygook, often in emphatic all-caps lettering, running words together in a continuous stream. His kooky hand lettering recalls psychedelic-period Head Comix. It’s ‘the bright and the cretinous all jumbled up together’, explains John Hurrell.5
These defaced works bear comparison with other anti-authoritarian works: Marcel Duchamp’s moustachioed and obscenely captioned Mona Lisa variant, L.H.O.O.Q. (1919),6 with Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953), and with the Chapman Brothers’s ‘improved’ Goya etchings, Insult to Injury (2003).
In McGregor’s one-sided collaborations, has the art-school-trained contemporary artist mangled and undone the patient handiwork of over-skilled but under-qualified street artists or enhanced it? And what do these works say about portraiture? With his additions, McGregor isn’t responding to his sitters as individuals but doing his own thing regardless. Every sitter is subjected to more or less the same treatment, including the artist himself—and his better half. ‘It rains on the just and unjust alike.’ Most portraiture is flattery, but is that the case here? Was Art Gallery of South Australia Director Nick Mitzevich charmed by his portrait? Was he supposed to run out and buy it for the Gallery collection or his own collection, his office or his closet? And if not, who else would want it: someone who adored him or someone who wanted him brought down a notch or two—perhaps someone who themselves wanted to deface his official presidential image?7
McGregor’s work wanders—it’s ‘all over the place’.8 He’s a ramblin’ man. Travel has become key to his work. McGregor lived in Bali (where his wife is from) for the best part of a year in 2014 and 2015. He produced a hundred-or-so works on paper, recording and responding to his experiences of local life, refracted through his outsider eyes. Like Pong-Ping Paradise and S-O-M-E-O-N-E, the Bali drawings net random observations. Each precisely dated sheet reflects a day in the life. It may be a diary, an autobiographical accumulation, but it doesn’t tell a story—there’s no overarching narrative. Everything is fragmented and decontextualised. The jumbled effect resembles ‘thought patterns’, McGregor suggests. Some images are pointedly Balinese—referring to Hinduism, to wood carvings, to anthropology (he was reading Margaret Mead). Indeed, some are clichés, reflecting Bali’s commodified authenticity—those hundreds of identical traditional masks carved for tourists. Other images we strain to connect to the place. One whole sheet reproduces the New York Times masthead. (Why? It was the only English-language newspaper available in Ubud, so McGregor read it every day. But who knows this, without being told?). One figure looks to me like it might come from The Simpsons, but was actually copied from an old painting addressing the Dutch occupation (Dutch Oven 2014).
McGregor is a virtuoso draftsman. The Bali drawings demonstrate his graphic flair. Images rendered in finicky detail in blue Fine Point share the stage with others made with broad strokes of watercolour, suggesting a world in which realistic forms and expressionist ones might cohabit and interact. The images are like notes to self, aides-memoire. But, when you make notes for yourself, you’re reminding yourself of things you have already experienced; to others, lacking your memories, the same notes make no such sense. McGregor plays on this. He sketches things he has seen, but we now see them out of context. He may have been a visitor in Bali (rendering things he didn’t always understand), but we become tourists in his sketchbook (we are doubly distanced from his original subjects).
McGregor plays on the random sketchbook aesthetic self consciously, with doodles and odd scraps collaged in. One sheet looks like he used it to test his watercolours, with dabs of this and that blue—but the effect is beautiful (Head Face 2015). Is the informality genuine (a by-product of the practicalities of capturing impressions on the fly) or a stylish conceit (done with the effect in mind)? Does McGregor let us into the intimate world of the artist’s daily production or simply signify ‘the intimate world of the artist’s daily production’? Is the work revealing or concealing?
Oddly, the way I’ve described McGregor’s work makes it sound a bit like that of an older Australian artist who also combines portraiture (particularly self-portraiture) with ‘automatic drawing’—Mike Parr. The 2016 Biennale of Sydney guidebook argues that a Parr work ‘represents a myriad of quickly sketched notes to and of the self. The artist describes it as “unconstrained in every respect … a quagmire of drawings, notes, doodles, performance scripts, etcetera, and all this stuff is juxtaposed as some sort of stream of consciousness that is only intermittently clear even to myself”.’9 It adds: ‘the artist depicts his own face as a distended cipher … renderings vary wildly … Parr describes the mutability and instability of the works as “a crucial aspect of their meaning because it calls into question the look of the work in relation to the dilemmas surrounding the … self-portrait”.’10
Sound familiar? And yet, in affect, these two artists couldn’t be more different. Parr is an existentialist-expressionist hero, an id monster, full of Sturm und Drang. He’s Mr. Serious. Meanwhile, McGregor eschews gravitas. He’s Mr. Why So Serious? At the Biennale, Parr exhibited a collection of studio drawing boards featuring attempted self-portraits—a visual diary affording us insight into the profound depths of his authenticity, as it unfolded over more than a decade. By contrast, McGregor’s self portraits are fun, and his Bali drawings are a faux-sketchbook that ultimately provides little insight into himself or his location, holding both, charmingly, at bay. At the Biennale, Parr torched $750,000 worth of his self-portrait prints, expressing disregard for his collectors (and, somehow, also his concerns over global warming). By contrast, McGregor treats collectors and gallery directors like friends and family, subjecting them to the same celebrity-roast indignities to which he happily subjects himself. Parr is all about the Truth—he doubts, therefore he is. But McGregor is not so fraught. Is McGregor Parr’s undoing? Or is Parr Waterface? Seriously.
[IMAGE: Laith McGregor Woodsman 2013]
- Email to the author, June 2016.
- This Duchamp work could also be a precedent for McGregor’s beard drawings. Duchamp putting a moustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa was a slight on Leonardo’s sexuality, acknowledging that he may have preferred his beautiful woman to have been a man. When read aloud, the acronym title suggests an obscene remark in French—‘elle a chaud au cul’—implying sodomy.
- Actually, the Mitzevich portrait was bought by Mitzevich fan, Dr. Dick Quan.
- McGregor is itinerant. He has worked out of a variety of studios in different places, different countries. Changing opportunities and constraints underpins his use of different mediums, approaches, and scales.
- Bree Richards, ‘Mike Parr’, 20th Biennale of Sydney: The Guide (Sydney: Biennale of Sydney, 2016), 275.