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Clare Stephenson, 'The Prompter', 2005, ink, pencil and newspaper

Opacity, obstruction and occlusion of meaning are strong tactics in Clare Stephenson’s work. In her new drawings, she elaborates on her previous works on paper: re-combinations of representational elements that purposefully perplex, never adding up to anything like a useful representation. Stephenson’s slight, attenuated concentrations of pen and ink, aerosol and photocopy—most of which supposedly refer back to some original ‘sculpted’ assemblage in the artist’s studio—possess a sardonic force that generates a kind of immobilised scepticism, preventing easy closure or quick satisfaction.

Several works on paper continue Stephenson’s use of an assumed physical assemblage as subject for a drawing—though these flimsy constructions no longer have the support of the biscuit-shaped or coaster-like bases that grounded the assemblages shown in earlier drawings. Instead, the scant notations of form float in the limbo between drawn surface and implied space.

In ‘untitled’ (all works 2005), an upright pencil (or stake) pierces the top edge of a sort of concertina. Within its bounds there’s a photocopy collage comprising a twisty bit of what looks like coat-hanger wire, which seems to support some putty-like fragment of sculpted matter. At its summit, it coalesces into the partial form of ‘The Prompter’: a recurring, curious figure of a little man ready to read you your lines, derived from a caricature by Daumier.

If this is tortuous, pedantic description, that’s partly the point of the arch, po-faced humour of Stephenson’s work. Obfuscation and a spiralling deferment of representation are built into the careful variation of rendering techniques. The humour gets a good punchline in the one actual object-sculpture in the show. ‘Eye’ is a fat, triangular shard of fine wood, with a cartoonish eye carved and painted into its base, the triangle set lengthways on a supporting post, like a telescope on a stand. It seems to recall one of Jesus’s better one-liners: the one where he advises his audience not to remark on the splinter in another’s eye, lest they fail to notice the beam in their own. One’s ability to see the splinter through the beam is part of Jesus’s quirky metaphor: an idea of blindness and seeing shifts from the visual to the conceptual (or the moral) in an instant. ‘Eye’ thus functions as shorthand for the more complex arrangements of stuck gears that are Stephenson’s drawings.

‘The Prompter’ and other references to Daumier—notably the two busts in ‘Pile’, with their clogged, fatty rendering—present the historical as moribund, zombie-like, uncomfortably close yet still ungraspable. Stalled history, collapsed representation, worn-out media, already dead objects: Stephenson’s work is a black hole for other, more cheerfully luminous artworks to fall into.

This work is undeniably uncomfortable; less clear is whether it is critical, or whether its scepticism isn’t eventually a form of scorchedearth nihilism of signification. If all meaning is artifice, nothing living can be said. If, however, language is not the false image of an unknowable world, but the product of a living interrogation of its extent, then visual representation might just possibly feed on something more than itself.

JJ Charlesworth is a critic and curator at the Herbert Read Gallery, Canterbury