John Monteith Somewhere Else

Works in the exhibition

The shape of the in-between

Judith Vrancken 

It is a hot summer day in Berlin when I walk up the deserted Lichtenauerstrasse in Alte Hohenschönhausen on my way to John Monteith's studio. The only sound is the sound of heat itself rising up from the pavement. I reach the end of the street facing the old political prison of the former East German Communist Ministry of State Security: the Stasi. As opposed to many other government and military institutions in East Germany, demonstrators did not storm and plunder this prison after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This gave the prison authorities a chance to thoroughly destroy any evidence, contributing to an erasure of its monumental history and memory. 

I walk inside the large, seemingly empty green building across the street, up the cool staircase to the fourth floor. After passing many empty rooms I reach his studio at the end of a long hallway. A series of drawings is meticulously displayed on the walls as if installed for an actual exhibition, punctuating that special feeling one gets when visiting artists in their studios; instead of arriving in a disarranged world in which one little corner has been hastily and temporarily cleared of any clutter, here, in the quiet scorching heat of Alte Hohenschönhausen, an actual thought-out presentation has been awaiting my indecently delayed presence. 

Twelve works are hung on white walls, eight of which consist of the wax and pigment pencil drawings displayed in a tight row, titled Untitled +/-. They seem simple at first, minimalistic almost, composed of square and rectangular shapes in black and dark blue hews. However, as I lengthen my gaze these pieces gradually increase in vibrancy, exposing a broader color scheme, and as if adjusting my eyesight to darkness, contours raise to the surface as well. Just as is this neighbourhood, Monteith's practice is infused with a certain layering of (collective) memory. The work has been voided, put under erasure, leaving a structure, which, through a game of schematic folds and distinctive color schemes produces art where you least expect it, in the in-between of the blanks, of that which is lacking, the imagined, or that what is yet to come. For Monteith, this is the canvas on which meaning is infused. 

In a more literal sense, meaning is introduced through his text based works, that with their loose phrases and words, cut through the ephemeral quality of the in-betweennes as is manifested in the Untitled +/- series.  Coupled with the other works in this exhibition, his drawings "City as Text", "Somewhere else", and "X" hint at a specificity of place, leading one's mind towards somewhere that is n8ever fully revealed, causing thought to catalyze and disrupt at the same time. 

Recently, the discourse of contemporary art has tended to verge towards extremes of empiricism and aestheticism in which either the empirical "status" or the formal qualities of a work of art are foregrounded. This polarization of both verticality and horizontality, form and content, inside and outside, studio and world-historical, abstraction and realism often resist any form of integration. Monteith attempts to work exactly in the space of the in-between, perhaps in an effort to unify these opposing elements? Consequently, the artist has found a way to give shape to absence, which paradoxically becomes the most prominent element in his practice. When looking at the Untitled +/- drawings I am reminded of Formless,Yves Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss's book from 1997, in which they draw on the concept of George Bataille's informe: the concept of the absent present to dissolve the binary oppositions of form and content in an artwork [1]. In particular Krauss identifies the dissolving of the figure ground relationship in art and the collapse of the barrier separating art from life with "entropy" [2]. Entropy, Krauss suggests, makes the viewer disappear and become part of the chaos that is the artwork [3]. With these works, Monteith manages to involve the viewer, engulfing them in an intimate relationship in which personal memory is implicated along the metaphysics of presence and structure. It is through these underlying and invisible traces that the artist controls one's pattern of thought, by infusing a sense of potential within the "thingness" of that depicted.

For me, his work at large is very much about that which can be imagined, what can be said, taken for granted, what can appear as rational or not, as thinkable and sayable. This potentiality (future) or spectrality (past) are the traces that haunt us, or those the future moulds in the present. In reality, these potentialities can take on any form, and with that notion, Monteith explores the position of experiencing his subject in relation to various systems of representation,  with a full awareness that the construction of subjectivity is an open-ended process.

[1] Yves Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss. Formless. New York: Zone Books, 1997. 

[2] Bois, Krauss, 1997: 75.

[3] Bois, Krauss, 1997: 75.

Judith Vrancken is a critic, writer and occasional curator. She is the writer and editor at Nederlands Dans Theater in The Hague, the Netherlands, specializing in the field of contemporary dance and performance. Vrancken is a regular contributor to Art Agenda, Frieze d/e, Artforum, Flash Art, and Metropolis M. Vrancken divides her time between Amsterdam and Berlin.

For more information on the artist