Jonathan Monk’s mini- retrospective in Berlin, Yesterday today tomorrow etc, travelled from St. Gallen in Switzerland, a town named after the Celtic monk Gallus. Somehow this fact and that word—gallus —seems appropriate to Monk’s habits. According to Michael Munro’s book The Complete Patter, gallus is defined as ‘a general term of approval in Glasgow and… when applied to people it’s more about attitude and includes elements of toughness, cheek, self-assurance and boldness’. Monk’s chutzpah is perhaps best illustrated by the early work ‘My name written in my piss’, 1994—enough to give anyone a riddy .
Bravely partnering your work with that of established greats runs the risk of accusations of unoriginality or repetition. Some might say that the joke isn’t funny any more. This high risk strategy rests on the hope that the well-off older artists Monk appropriates do not decide that his actions are a little too close to home and too near the bone. You wouldn’t want to be dealing with someone as litigious as, oh, say Morrissey for example.
Thankfully, conceptualists seem to be a forgiving bunch. Monk’s new show, Second Hand, at the Lisson, finds him working again with Sol LeWitt. He hand draws early works by the master in one gallery and displays teased out giant paperclips referring to the American’s pristine cubes in another. Riffing on Robert Barry’s ‘Telepathic Piece’ 1969, Monk gives us ‘Translation Piece’ 2003.
Here a text in English is translated into French then through eight other languages before being turned back into gibberish English. This strategy is revisited in a new work Monk has made by asking a sign painter to depict a Rothko following written instructions from arch conceptualists Art and Language—‘What is seen is described and what is described is seen’, 2006.
There’s also clearly a nod and a wink to John Baldessari going on. The distrust of language is made apparent by the end result which lacks all the transcendent qualities of a real Rothko implying that Monk, for all the dryness of conceptualism, is something of a sentimentalist. The impossibility of translation also recalls the brilliant arguments of Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over rendering Pushkin into English.
Outright hilarity occurs as when Monk entitles a canvas ‘This painting should ideally be hung on the same wall as an Alighiero e Boetti’, 2006. This tone is belied elsewhere by an underlying melancholy as evidenced in his headstone ‘A Work in Progress (to be completed when the time comes)’ 1969—‘(White)’ 2005, or his sapphire eye photographs where he depicts himself as Wilde’s not so happy prince.
As Monk is no stranger to literary references it is Philip Roth’s mid-period Zuckerman books, literature about literature, that come to mind seeing these shows. Despite the convoluted joys, we worry as to how the artist gets out of this cell. We can only hope that Monk, like Roth, has the audacity to create late works of real power and that this review be placed on the same page as one by Umberto Eco.
John Quin is a writer living in London