22 July – 16 August 2020

James Lieutenant

Give up the ghost

The agitated image – James Lieutenant’s Giving up the ghost at Galerie pompom

I suppose it was the cocktail of rain and my faltering mental health that made my heart race. It was four in the morning and I was about to ride my stolen bicycle to the job that I loathed. From the kitchen window, I looked across the soupy darkness of our backyard and saw a face looking back at me from the garden bed. In a single film frame, I jolted from my disoriented stupor to rigid panic. I quickly paced down the hall, convincing myself that I had only seen my reflection in the glass. The other half of me was intent on believing that I had seen a ghost. How could my eyes deceive me?

When we speak of attempting to know something, we sniff it out, or we feel around in the dark, or we get a taste. Whereas when we speak of knowing, we oversee, we look and we witness. The metaphors we use reveal that we commonly regard understanding as seeing (do you see what I’m saying?). 

Yet we may also be sceptical of the information our eyes give us – I could not believe my eyes – as though somewhere between seeing and understanding there may be interference.

As I cycled to work, I managed to convince myself that my wires were crossed, that the face I’d seen were the dreams that my alarm had interrupted. They had trespassed into my waking life. Mental chatter had bent my thoughts. Noise had interrupted my signal.

James Lieutenant is an artist who creates work with an interrupted signal. In creating this new series of screen-printed works on canvas, he decided to adopt a new philosophy and process in order to create visually arresting and uncomfortable work. Lieutenant calls this the agitated surface. During our conversations, held while the work was in development, Lieutenant spoke of striving for the creation of an image that is never comfortable and never at rest. One where the eye isn’t allowed an immediate understanding of what it sees. What struck me about these new works was the visual push and pull between foreground and background, and between the photographic and the painted. These works occupied an intermediate zone, one that evades quick classification. 

Lieutenant sees the medium of screenprint as a ‘very odd moment in technology that has had a huge impact on how we look at images’. It is a technology that sits somewhere between the pixelated and the painted. The fine mesh of the screens and the layering of colours so closely resembles the technology of television that, from the 1960s onwards, screenprint became the medium for addressing what was then a new media environment: Lieutenant is acutely aware of how his work fits into art-historical dialogue, with artists such as Cady Noland and Andy Warhol informing his early practice. These new works show particular influence from the blurred paintings of Gerhard Richter, with Lieutenant wanting the viewer to ‘never be aware of where your eyes are meant to be sitting. It’s a form of photographic blurring’. 

To arrive at these agitated images, Lieutenant adopted a new process: Whereas previous bodies of work were ‘executing a script’, the works in Giving up the ghost were composed by chance actions and occasionally the deliberate intervention of others, with Lieutenant asking other people in the print workshop to add a layer of imagery. These methods are how Lieutenant imagines ‘giving up the ghost’. They are an abandoning of the conscious control that marked previous work, or as he says: 

Now they are allowed to be all over the place… In this, the accident is the operative 

There is an affinity to another ‘ghost’ in this new work, one that is now almost lost to our everyday visual culture: the televisual ‘ghost image’. This phenomenon of analogue television occurred when different signals would cross: One station would interlace with another, creating a ghostly presence composed of multiple layered images. Like a mixed analogue signal, Lieutenant’s prints are composed of incongruous images, where a soft grey foreground may capsize the bold saturated waves of colour that lie underneath. He attests that there is ‘no consistent technique throughout the whole [exhibition]’, a deliberate mixological approach. 

Lieutenant has fostered a radical scepticism in these works, one that is directed towards our visual understanding. By discarding preliminary composition and accepting accidents, and by producing images that visually oscillate between layers, he is attempting to decouple seeing and understanding. His images remain elusive, or as he puts it, ‘the focal point of these works will be the frame around it as they sit on the wall’. Take, for example, the sardonic use of photographed fabric (something that, admittedly, I initially mistook for satellite imagery) in the work Angels. Lieutenant explains to me that, in the European tradition of painting, depicting draped fabric was 

a sign of mastery of technique in painting—if you could paint drapery you were [considered] a great painter… I like the absurdity of screen-printing that.

The notion that a mastery of painting requires the mimesis of what we see diminishes the potential of the medium. Giving up the ghost opens up a field of new visual possibility, one where the images are not meant to be comfortable, as they are an interrupted signal.

I hope you get the picture.

David Greenhalgh is a remix video artist who, for his primary income, works as an archivist/curator type at the National Gallery of Australia.