The Medium and the Message – A review of John Demos exhibition by Chloé Wolifson

The Medium and the Message
A review of Extrapolate: The Art of John Demos, curated by Lucy Brack, at the Big Fag Press, 30 August – 10 September 2015
By Chloé Wolifson

Considered and repetitive mark-making is central to the work of John Demos. Over a 30 year practice employing a variety of media, from the more traditional etching, ceramics, collage and paint to the less conventional but widely available chalk on chalkboard and marker on whiteboard, Demos has created landscapes of the mind, inviting the viewer into his conceptual processes.

Individually Demos’ works are often immersive and can sometimes even feel claustrophobic, however the exhibition Extrapolate: The Art of John Demos at Big Fag Press allowed for breathing room around each work which balanced this effect. The surfaces of most works were covered in the artist’s signature repeated text, including chairs and tables as well as two-dimensional works hung on the walls. The work Whiteboard, Table and Chair, Ensemblage, 1980s consisted of an installation of the aforementioned whiteboard, table and chair, each covered in text – the artist himself conspicuous by his absence in the setting.

The line between practice and final work was regularly blurred, as the temporary nature of chalkboard and whiteboard text abounded, and visitors and Big Fag staff moved about the space which is after all a working studio as well as exhibition space. This provided an atmosphere of warmth to the exhibition.

There is a sense of the personal and subjective in Demos’ arrangement of words which, taken individually and out of context would be devoid of such meaning. The layering of words becomes a mind map, as words such as ‘genius’, ‘ingenious,’ ‘intelligence’ and ‘mentoring’ meld with ‘physics’, ‘quantum leap,’ ‘processing’ and ‘etching’. Just as our internal trains of thought are bound to move synapse-like from one idea to another, connected by tenuous threads which hold their own internal logic, the overall visual effect of these works is of a topography. These vast changing landscapes of text and fields of marks brought to mind those schools of Indigenous Australian painting which depict aerial-like views of the earth. The gradual progression of words also evokes the formation and evolution of habits across time – an internal, psychological typography of its own.

The inclusion of an audio descriptor of the works added an enjoyable layer to the experience of viewing the exhibition. Hearing a male and female voice reciting the words in Demos’ works, distinct, overlapping and sometimes onomatopoeic as they appear on the various surfaces of the works, became a performative element beyond its descriptive qualities.
The development of Demos’ art practice was in evidence across the works in the exhibition, which were dated from the early 1980s up to the present day. However one did not need to look at a catalogue list to understand this history. It was visible in the works themselves, in the conceptual relationships within and between them. And in the 2015 work The Beginning, deliberate yet playfully colourful text marked on a chalkboard signified a freshness and dynamism in Demos’ current practice – signifying that perhaps the best is yet to come.