This monograph, published on the occasion of ‘two complementary and overlapping exhibitions’ of Patterson’s work in Edinburgh and Birmingham, offers a good visual overview of his work, from the name portraits of the late 80s through the sculptural installations of the 90s, to new film works made for the exhibitions. Patterson’s own short texts are brief, lucid and informative, and are sometimes usefully expanded by material in Michael Archer’s essay, covering his whole career to date. Fiona Bradley’s essay on ‘General Assembly’ 1994, is a more laboured piece, which fails to do justice to her enthusiasm for the work. She mentions, without further comment, that ‘the essay written [by Patricia Bickers] to accompany ‘General Assembly’s’ original presentation was translated into Esperanto, and is published for the first time in that language in this volume’. Why? Of more interest to the non-Esperantist is a tart letter from the translator, William Auld, complaining of Bickers’ insensitivity to Esperanto, which displays a personal engagement absent from Bradley’s detatched prose.
Archer meanwhile feels the need to defend the work against accusations that it is ‘selfconsciously smart’ and ‘somewhat stark’, and certainly some of the more reductive pieces are difficult to warm to. But there is a tension in Patterson’s work between a deliberate and cerebral minimalism and a sense of play, even frivolousness. If the book highlights the former, the latter creeps in nonetheless, as when Archer tellingly quotes André Breton to connect Patterson with the surrealists. The reworking of the London Underground map ‘The Great Bear’ is deservedly Patterson’s best-known work. Featured visually though barely commented on, it fuses an impersonal, given system with quirky subjective preferences, and the juxtapositions it creates are provocative and funny, down to the deadpan list of stations with restricted opening times.
Patterson’s striking comment on ‘TimePiece’ 2005, that a test shoot didn’t achieve ‘the hopefully more erotic result that I was aiming at’, invites responses absent here. His recent postcard for World Book Day, an exemplary A-Z of favourite books (not included here), contains, alongside a Bible and the I-ching, several classics of erotic literature. Given his repeated referencing of film stars, football, motor racing, war and popular music, one can’t escape competitive physicality and exhibitionism. If the ‘systems’ behind the work are dutifully explicated, the pleasures it offers remain regrettably underexplored.
Ken Cockburn is a writer and director of Platform Projects