one: being careful with the message
We may no longer look to works of visual art for simplistic readings of an artist’s personality but even in a critical climate that tends to regard the individual as subject and their works as texts, it’s hard to fully resist the notion that we can read off from the surface of images something of their maker’s character. Perhaps the more recent form of this is the psychoanalytical reading in which the works themselves are taken to reveal psychological traits, so that we might, for instance, see in Mondrian’s paintings an overly repressive regime at work or, as Rosalind Krauss does, detect in Picasso’s highly detailed ‘photographic’ portraits made during and after the First World War an example of what Sigmund Freud terms reaction formation, a compensatory activity which substitutes for a repressed or feared desire. With collaborative works, then, the temptation must be to try and separate out the two personalities involved or, if not that, to identify two psychological operations whose points of contact, or conflict, generate the imagery. To even start on such an enterprise with these pieces by Steve Rodgers and Mike Walker we would have to have some idea of who does what and the dynamic that drives their collaborative process.
The starting point, chronologically at least, is the abstract paintings that Mike Walker has been making for the last three or four years. Walker generally works with an all-over field, so there are no focal points of interest in his compositions, though more recently he has begun to impose upon this field a grid, breaking it up into individual units. Each of those units contains a set of irregular curving lines that press out to the edges of each grid-unit or burst through that boundary into the neighbouring spaces and there is a varying balance between the distinctness of those units or their absorption into an overall movement across the entire image. There is, we might say, a tension between an ordering system and its potential dissolution into chaos and the works offer themselves up to readings based upon such notions of order/disorder.
Walker made a set of such images entirely in black, using highly dilute inks, and passed them on to Steve Rodgers who scanned them into his computer and began the process of digitally manipulating and colouring the images. He took the raw material of those drawings and, rather than making a variant on Walker’s paintings, used them as a springboard to a wholly new group of images. They are, like the source, abstract and they make use of the gridded field but from the very beginning Rodgers works with a more relational model of composition, creating different areas of colour-form that balance off each other. They have a clarity that is in marked contrast to the unstable contested terrain of Walker’s paintings. They also employ, as might be expected, a different range of colour in which bright hues are anchored by more muted greys, browns, reds and greens, in which black is played off against bursts of colour and flat areas of colour are sparked into life by smaller zones of contrast. They take the basic features of Mike Walker’s pictorial constructions, in other words, and put them through the filter of a new, if sympathetic, sensibility.
The two artists have continued in this vein for the last eighteen months. After receiving a group of new images via email, Walker makes a new set of drawings, always in black, which are then re-figured by Rodgers. Whereas each phase of work from Rodgers throws out at least three or four different conceptions of how an image might be put together, Walker tends to work with a single basic format for each set of drawings, often picking up on a single innovation in the last sequence from Rodgers. In one set Walker took a group of drawings he had called Valentines, composed of four units containing irregular lines, and traced out the negative spaces between the lines, a form of reversal already present in Rodgers’s digital work. These negative spaces, now areas, have become one of the dominant modes in the collaborative work.
This brief description of how Rodgers and Walker generate their collaborative work might give some notion of their interchange of ideas, but it is only to start on that process. From the very first set of images, for instance, Steve Rodgers incorporated text into the works. Initially he used what he terms default text, words found through chance and usually in an everyday context. Keep Dry and board, for instance, were printed on the sections of a cardboard box used by Walker to sandwich the first set of drawings. After this Rodgers sampled numerous signs and notices, inserting into the images text such as slippery surface, in constant use, on this side, phrases whose utilitarian function becomes subtly displaced and which, with an odd consistency, seem applicable to formal or material aspects of the images, so that no more space or blind spot take on a new significance in relation to the abstract imagery being employed. At no point does either artist attempt to deliberately contrive any relation between the text and the image: there is never any attempt to illustrate the text or create a parallel mood in the image, just as words are not chosen to deliberately accompany the visual. This almost, but not quite, random juxtaposing of two separate systems of signification highlights the gap which always exists between text and image, a caesura in meaning which is normally glossed over through ensuring some form of connection between image and text. By allowing such connections to arise only incidentally, in aleatory fashion, these works offer up different questions about how image and text function together, throwing into relief some of the conventions that have arisen in both design and fine art contexts.
Reading some of these words in terms of the nature of the image is, however, to make some very specific intertextual connections, ones which relate chiefly to the critical tradition of abstract painting. If slippery surface seems to ripple out with connotations it is partly because surface is a loaded word in such painting, fraught with interpretative disputes that revolve around the nature of a painted surface, its relative flatness, its actuality as opposed to its illusionism. A word as simple as board becomes embroiled in the difference between support and surface and blind spot moves beyond the physiological towards the nature of our perception. When looking at Jackson Pollock’s painting Out of the Web (1949), executed on an MDF board and with large areas of the composition gouged out to reveal the rough under-surface of that board, Michael Fried characterised those areas as blind spots, as if we saw them within the eye. This tendency of randomly chosen words to trigger such theoreticalstrands of thinking has encouraged both artists to experiment further with categories of words and to make some of this interconnectivity more deliberate, whilst retaining the principle of not contriving a deliberate match between text and image.
This gap between image and text contributes to a quality of in-between-ness in the collaborative work as a whole. That might seem inevitable when two individuals so wholly combine their abilities and visual sensibilities and we could, at this point, begin to probe a more psychoanalytical terrain, but it is perhaps more profitable to think of that in-between-ness as something between systems of signification, or between the conventions of established visual codes. Clearly in some respects the images are between graphic design and abstract painting in that they employ visual conventions culled from both, though their primary mode of address is towards the latter. This is not as simple as identifying and separating out the two artists’ different forms of training and skill-sets, for Walker has always been an artist concerned with line and an essentially graphic mode of painting and Rodgers has a keener eye for the nuances of abstract form, not to mention colour, than most painters. It might even be the very compatability of the two which produces this in-between-ness, the fact that both of them are already predisposed to work between traditions and what might prove interesting are the ways in which, over time, they take over each other’s terrain. In the most recent phase of the project Walker has been obtaining multiple copies of some of the images produced so far and working over the top of them, giving him the kind of freedom to re-work the same image over and over that previously belonged to Rodgers. It’s only a matter of time before Rodgers begins to insist upon restricting formal innovations and takes on the sort of near repetitions that have played an important part in Walker’s paintings.
All of which might give us some idea of what has gone into, and what might be taken out of, an image such as Be Careful with this Message. Its cautionary note is drawn from the everyday world and it presents itself to us like an innocuous book-cover, or a pretend warning sign, to be read as image-message and acted upon accordingly. Underneath it holds the weight of abstract painting, the endeavour to move beyond representation and find meaningful forms of painting that operate in other ways, acting upon us more ambiguously. Such imagery is not reducible to information, to a simple message and, in its difficulty, is open to misinterpretation. We have to approach it with a certain care. We sometimes have to wait before any message comes at all.
 For a psychoanalytical reading of Mondrian’s paintings, see Bryony Fer’s “Decoration and Necessity: Mondrian’s Excess” in On Abstract Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), pp.33-54. For Rosalind Krauss’s reading of Picasso’s drawings and the way that they contain a mechanical element of both the photographic and the abstract, see especially the first section of “Picasso/Pastiche” in her book The Picasso Papers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), pp.87-158.
 These gouged out areas act as figures, ones which we see ‘like a kind of blind spot within the eye’ or that ‘lie somewhere within our own eyesas strange as that may sound.’ This is part of Fried’s elaboration of opticality and concomitant suppression of materiality in paintings and such an argument is of relevance to digitally produced images that, through text, make reference to aspects of their own physical composition. See Michael Fried, “Three American Painters: Noland, Olitski, Stella,” in Art and Objecthood (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp.213-268, especially the section on Pollock, pp.222-229, quotations on p.228.
 Morton Feldman’s idea of almost repetitions, something between repetition and variation, as well as his notion of sound (and by inference paint) as material have been important in forming Walker’s practice, especially during his collaborations with composer Bryn Harrison. See Feldman’s “Crippled Symmetry,” in Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change Books, 2000), pp.134-149 as well as Bryn Harrison’s essays in overcoming form: reflections on immersive listening (Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield Press, 2013). If the collaboration with Rodgers is moving Walker away from employing near repetition as a generative factor in making sequences of work, then it is only to be wondered whether a corresponding move by Rodgers in the opposite direction will occur.