On April 9, 1799 Humphrey Davy discovered that pure nitrous oxide (laughing gas, N2O) was safe to inhale, and records that on the next day he became ‘absolutely intoxicated’ by breathing 16 quarts of it for ‘near seven minutes’.
In 1800 he published his findings under the title, ‘Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide’, thereby underlining the element of abstract speculation that accompanied his scientific activity.
The arts and the sciences were yet to diverge, and understanding the materiality of the world was a common cause among intellectuals, the foundation upon which reason and imagination would build the revolution. It all begins with the microscopic and the microcosmic, with elementary particles and personal pleasure. The things of the world, thoughts of the mind and sensations of the body interact, fuelled by similar energy.
Thus Percy Bysshe Shelley (a friend of Davy, who willingly shared his gas supply with artistic acquaintances) held that sensory impressions produced corresponding vibrations in the mind, harmonious echoes that could then be expressed symbolically through words, paint and stone. (Jonathan Mendilow, ‘Shelley’s Philosophy of Liberty’, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol VI, No 2, 1982)
The task of the imagination (aided by the art of the chemist, perhaps) was to expand this symbolic lexicon, thereby increasing the stock of available experiences. Imagination could also develop the individual’s capacity for empathy, transforming interpersonal relationships and introducing new social and moral standards. Laughing gas released such utopian fervour: ‘I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder working gas of delight’, said Robert Southey, N2O addict and poet laureate, 1813-43.
In 2007, Michael Fullerton filled several condoms with nitrous oxide and called it ‘Pleasure in Nonsense’. Why not? You can buy balloons filled with the gas for £2 a pop at clubs and festivals. It’s legal, too: N2O is a vital ingredient in the whipped cream industry. Be advised however that, ‘due to recent misuse issues [KinkyCream.co.uk] can no longer ship to Jersey or any university halls of residence.’
Fullerton knows about Davy and Shelley: in the mid-1990s he painted a portrait of the chemist and, a year or so earlier, wrote an undergraduate dissertation on the poet’s theory of symbolism. Fullerton’s interests in chemistry (ferric oxide is a material he frequently uses: BASF is a company he often directly references in his exhibitions), the transformation of inert matter into meaningful signs and symbols, the power of pleasure, and art as a means of social and political agency, are all informed by the work of these precursors of the modern world.
Noticing that his condoms leaked, their contents slowly escaping, Fullerton realised that if he hung them above head height, the heavy laughing gas would gently, imperceptibly, drift down on to anyone standing below. Realistically, no one was going to get intoxicated against their will, or without their knowledge and consent, as a result of this crafty joke. It was the gesture that mattered, a gesture allowing ambitions of the past to seep almost undetected into the present.
I am writing about Michael Fullerton and, so far, have made only one passing reference to painting. There is a reason. To approach Fullerton simply as a (portrait) painter is to underestimate the nature, scope and intention of his activity. In addition to painting, he has also produced prints, films and sculptures: found objects, imagery and text (assisted and unassisted readymades) also often find their way into his exhibitions.
But underlying this variety is a set of concerns that are perfectly coherent, consistent and focused, and it is only within the context of the formal and material heterogeneity of his practice as a whole, that the force of this conceptual agenda achieves its effect.
In her review of Get Over Yourself, Fullerton’s 2007 show at Greene Naftali in New York, Roberta Smith may have misunderstood the significance of the eclecticism she experienced, and advised the artist to ‘consider more synthesis’. It might be argued, however, that the question of synthesis is precisely what occupies Fullerton. More precisely, it seems that Fullerton is engaged in an analysis of synthesis, an analysis that resists the temptation to ‘demonstrate’ or ‘produce’ synthesis within the body of work itself, but which uses that work (either individually or as ensemble) as one element in a broader relational situation that includes the active participation of the viewer as social agent.
Synthesis is thus addressed, but is understood as a form of productivity, an open process that may never be concluded. Notice how many of Fullerton’s paintings situate their subject against a field of open, ‘unfinished’ brush strokes, as if to establish indeterminacy as a defining condition. The fact that Fullerton’s work manifests itself in a materially diverse range of forms, objects and images suggests that this is material from which some form of synthesis might arise as a consequence of further creative, imaginative and intellectual work on the part of the viewer. Synthesis is a reward, not a gift, and Smith may have been looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing.
In ‘Relationships Are Systems (Dr Murray Bowen)’, 2007, Fullerton has produced a brushy, sepia portrait of a bespectacled young man who leans towards the viewer, but whose gaze is directed elsewhere. We are left to assume that this is a picture of Dr Bowen; alert, intense, and already fixed on the future. He is, curiously, both present as his image (before our steady gaze) and absent in his image (behind his averted gaze). The sensation of ‘elsewhere’ produced by the visual aspects of the image extends equally to the conceptual content of it.
In other words, unless you are a family therapist specialising in systemic therapy, you may not know who Dr Murray Bowen is, or what brought him to prominence: the image itself cannot provide this information, it has to be found somewhere else. To understand the significance of Fullerton’s choice of subjects it is often necessary to have an understanding of the campaigns they have been involved in.
Wikipedia, however, will soon inform you that one of Bowen’s key theories concerned the triangulation of inter-human relations, especially within the family: ‘people respond to anxiety between each other by shifting the focus to a third person, triangulation’.
Fullerton is not only fascinated by this attempt to account for human emotional relations in terms of systems theory, but is also intrigued by the potential of such a theory to add to our understanding of that ‘triangulation’ of relations between the painter, the sitter and the viewer which characterises the force field of portraiture.
In all these instances of triangulation, however, there is no synthesis, no final resolution, only a sense of incompletion. There’s always something absent, something missing. We feel that we, the viewers, are absent from Dr Bowen’s field of attention.
‘What Is Missing From This Picture?’ takes the form of three, square canvases joined at the corners so as to form a triangular space at the centre of the configuration. Two of the canvases bear the almost identical image of seven roses, while the presence of these roses is suggested on the third canvas by their absence, their negative presence as unpainted areas.
The question posed by the title of the work seems impossible to answer satisfactorily. On the one hand, nothing is missing: the ‘picture’ is as it is, complete. On the other hand, one does not even know where to begin one’s search for an answer. On a material level, for example, it could be pointed out that some paint is ‘missing’ from one of the canvases. Alternatively, it would be possible to suggest that the work is ‘missing’ significant semantic content: these flowers don’t seem to mean anything of substance, they are merely ‘nice’, decorative. Fullerton himself states that he is interested in the extent to which the idea of beauty without content may be achieved in painting without slipping into non-figurative abstraction.
But what is also missing from the picture, what is missing from all pictures, is its effect, because this effect comes after the picture and goes beyond it. It is a result of the picture joining a ‘dialogue’ with external factors such as the knowledge, experience and expectations of the viewer and the different contexts constituting the various viewing situations. What is missing from the picture is the viewer who can ponder the question that its title poses.
‘Pleasure In Nonsense’ comprises 13 casts of boxes originally intended to contain business cards. The boxes are arranged in a ‘molecular’ configuration, each box touching another with two, occasionally four, of its corners, resulting in a form of visual ‘triangulation’ throughout the compositional structure. The top surface of each box is covered in ferric oxide, applied like paint with a brush in swirling vortices. From one perspective, the business card boxes could signify social networks, the transmission of various kinds of information (social, professional, economic) between individuals. From another point of view, ferric oxide (the material used to coat magnetic recording tape) stands for the capturing and storing of information.
In its magnetised state, ferric oxide could also be understood in terms of the phenomenon of attraction, a phenomenon that excites Fullerton’s interest. Why, he wonders, are we attracted to a painting, for example, when paint is, after all, ultimately nonsensical ‘stuff’, inert material? What is the source of the invisible power that drives the movement from disorderly material to significant form, and that then attracts meaning to that form?
This, it seems, is on a continuum with Shelley’s inquiry in to those sensory impressions that produce corresponding vibrations in the mind, which may in turn shed light upon ‘the interlocking activities of the creator, the communicator, and the social revolutionary as manifestations of the dynamic of creative liberty’.
Fullerton, it should be emphasised, would want to distance himself entirely from such grandiose claims and inflated rhetoric. There are, nevertheless, certain interests he shares with these historical figures, and some of their unfinished business to be worked on. Ferric oxide and nitrous oxide: two unlikely catalysts for creative inquiry into the social chemistry of art.
John Calcutt is a writer and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art