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Eye Beams Entangled

Craig Burnett


Simon Moretti lives and works in a compact Victorian house, its walls teeming with pictures. Drawings, photographs and paintings, work by friends and relatives, objets d’art, images vivid and mute surround you in every room, all densely assembled, from the packed stairwell to a glazed abstraction behind the cooker. Everywhere you look there are little worlds or hard-edged patterns, provoking a continuous stimulation of your sense of sight, a reorientation of your vision and imagination. And amidst these pictures, you will see the occasional collage by Moretti himself. 


In the Elizabethan era, there was a theory that our eyes sent out little beams to interact with people and things, and vice versa. In John Donne’s ‘The Ecstasy’, the poet imagines the speaker of the poem in a hard stare with his lover, holding hands and with eye beams all entangled:


Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread

         Our eyes upon one double string;

So to'intergraft our hands, as yet

         Was all the means to make us one,

And pictures in our eyes to get

         Was all our propagation.


With the ‘eye-beams’, Donne describes a quicksilver substance that creates a bond between the eyes of the two lovers. The energy of the ‘pictures’ in their eyes, generated in part by the ‘eye-beams’, has an erotic power, enacts a form of ‘propagation’. Quaint as it is to our present-day, scientific outlook on the universe, the idea that eyesight comes equipped with a beam-like substance, and that the objects of our perception might also emit a beam of some kind – as if photons had feelings – has a peculiar power and beauty. It explains the force of visual interaction between people, and people and objects, and even objects and objects. Donne’s eye beams give external form to the palpable sensation of sight. Imagine all the pictures in a gallery, or in Moretti’s house, sending out beams to each other and to viewers, twisting into double and triple strings, propagating new experiences, new ideas. The house is an environment curated by Moretti and his partner, a space of myriad pictures that continually refreshes itself because of the energy generated by the juxtapositions, and by those imaginary beams. The ‘eye-beam’ substance suffuses the negative space between different people and objects. 


If Moretti’s house offers an insight into the environment of his everyday life, or even into how he wants to live – a kind of philosophy of life and looking – it also opens up his work as an artist. Moretti has always been an artist-curator, or curator-artist, someone for whom creating environments is of equal if not greater importance to the objects within that space. The overriding principle in his work is collage, that steadfast mode of making art used by different artists in diverse ways over the past hundred years or more. And yet for a relatively modern – if not modernist – method of art making, collage taps into some very primitive, childlike urges. Everyone has cut out a picture of something strange or beloved and combined it with another image, hoping to generate those ‘beams’ of energy between unrelated things. A collage transforms a single image into a fragment of an open-ended puzzle, a group of images into a mysterious tableau. As early as 1869, the poet Comte de Lautréamont, in his long, hallucinatory poem, Les Chants de Maldoror, struggled to describe the beauty of a sixteen-year-old boy with various metaphors before comparing him to ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!’ And in this foundational example we feel the force of juxtaposition: the grotesque, mundane or unlikely collide to create new forms of beauty and meaning. Collage is a supple method, with many ways to put it to work. For Cubists Braque and Picasso, it was a way to play games with the picture plane, to trick the eye by collaging bits of wood-grain wallpaper or newspaper into their paintings. Hannah Hoch, Martha Rosler and Barbara Kruger used collage for critical or political aims, concocting furious icons to protest war or consumerism. Combining unrelated images can be playful, rough or affectionate, but its peculiar power is its ability to give form to the inexpressible through analogy and surprise.


Simon Moretti extends the form with a combination of humble technology and his own idiosyncratic collection of material and imagery. In a recent body of work, there are three distinct modes, yet a similar process unites them all: the collage or juxtaposition of found imagery. Two collages, Untitled (Composition with Roses) and Untitled (Time without Example, for Simeone & Stella), offer examples of Moretti’s process. The picture plane, the space of the page, is a capsule environment that the artist uses to curate a group of images. Starting with his archive of pages appropriated from magazines, art books and other sources, he doesn’t set out with an idea or purpose, but allows the images to combine intuitively. In the upper left of Untitled (Composition with Roses) there is a picture lifted from the pages of The Male Figure, a 50s and 60s magazine that featured artfully posed, fresh-faced beefcakes, and beneath it to the right a fastidiously arranged domestic still life. Two contrasting objects, both from another era and expressly for a viewer’s delectation, are placed together in the same space. The interaction generates a new substance, invisible but felt. 


The large silkscreen works start with a small-scale combination of images, altered to an important degree by technical misadventure. In Untitled (Standing Figure with Quartz), for instance, Moretti printed the image of the African sculpture, but the printer was running out of ink, causing a stuttering set of horizontal lines that dissect the image. Rather than put this damaged thing aside, Moretti embraced the accident, and then combined it with a Sudoku puzzle and a piece of quartz. This assemblage is then scanned, blown up, and the monochrome areas printed as a silkscreen. The quartz stone is added afterwards as a separate glossy Giclée, honouring the different tones and textures of the source material. Untitled (to Kenneth Clark) shows London’s legendary Mandarin of high culture, beautifully dressed and in a museum setting, alongside a termite mound and a jagged, modernist sculpture. What’s happening to scale? Is this an act of levelling, or just a mischievous rearrangement of worlds? What would Clark have to say about a natural landscape or an abstract sculpture – or, more pertinently, how would a termite regard Clark? Despite the soft tones and coherent surface of the print, you can see vestiges of the torn and cut pages, the rough ephemerality of the source material. And at over 1.5 metres high, the size of the prints might bring to mind tapestries, or large-scale portrait paintings. The throwaway becomes almost monumental.  


The small, silver gelatine prints – or ‘Scanners’ – take their name from their birthplace: the scanner bed. Here Moretti arranges images, treating the glass surface of the scanner as a compositional space. The vestiges of the process – shadows of pages, visible cuts in the paper – are again important to the artist because they emphasise the scale and origin of the source imagery. The ‘scanner’ works tend to be busier, more complex visually, their language compressed. In Untitled (Je Est Un Autre- Un Multiple Toujours), Moretti arranged a vertiginous combination of pictures. A headshot (a 1983 Warhol Polaroid of Princess Caroline of Monaco), a prehistoric Venus, tripods, the eyes of a husky, a mountain landscape and a Henry Moore sculpture. One is tempted to seek connections or even an explanation, but the artist isn’t in the business of making crossword puzzles. This isn’t a rebus that can be converted to language. It’s a tiny explosion of the moment, an icon of a mind in action and at play, freed from concerns of purpose. Moretti translates his distinctive cosmography into a series of tightly composed mysteries erupting with little beams, generating a web of appositional substance to entangle the viewer.