Why Norman O’Flynn matters
“Hurry up please, it’s time.”
T.S. Eliot – ‘The Wasteland’
There is urgency in Norman O’Flynn’s paintings, they are reversed worlds seen through a looking glass. This flip is something we all think we’re accustomed to, but living-in-reverse is a nightmare from which we will never wake up.
Narcissus kick-started it all when he saw himself reflected in a sky-lit pool. Transfixed and mortified, the once blindly innocent Narcissus would never shake that first strange sighting of himself. It was the Ego’s first masturbatory fest which, today, we know as Facebook and the Selfie.
We doctor ourselves, airbrush our preferred features, and then launch ourselves into digital ether. Our lives are not our own but commodities fetishized. We trade in looks. Looking backwards, projecting forwards, we cancel out the static between.
O’Flynn is fascinated by this mediatised love-fest. In ‘Selfie’ – a self-portrait in acrylic on plexiglass – the artist reveals the horror that lies beneath the surface of things. Emblazoned on the artist’s brow we read: NEW GODS. The eyes – proverbial windows of the soul – gaze blank-blue. A unicorn like a scroll of smoke leaps from a non-existent mouth. Everywhere across a body as taut as parchment we encounter a cornucopia of words and symbols. The eye bounces back and forth across a body turned into a threshing surface of signs, for it is a body that harbours no essence, can never be one single thing. And then and there, in the eye of the storm the artist brews, we arrive upon a fugly Eureka moment – the death of metaphysics.
The Selfie is not the self. The self, now no longer itself, is turned into a phantasmagorical theatre that randomly reads, ‘Always a Ninja’, ‘Pow Pow Pow Ptow’, ‘The chief is a thief’, ‘Game Over’. Escher cubes, tigers, gun-toting pandas, emoticons, spaceships, rockets, skulls, bombs, Mother Mary, zeros and ones, serial numbers, all-seeing eyes, crop circles, are some of the signs and symbols which O’Flynn inscribes onto bodies he turns into hoardings and runes. For in O’Flynn’s multiplex we have arrived at the body as mediasphere abuzz with bytes as corrosive as they are viral. Glutted, concocted, O’Flynn’s bodies are a witch’s brew – ‘Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble’.
If Shakespeare’s witches are the seers of a godless future which the playwright must at the end of Macbeth put to rights, then what vision do we find writ across O’Flynn’s ‘timekeepers’? Are they symbolic messengers? Are they allegorical riddles? Or are they the addled spawn of a deranged and deranging vision?
Iconic, radioactive, visceral, O’Flynn’s timekeepers are doubtless figurative attempts to speak the present moment. But what present? Whose? Ours? And who and what are we? Are we the agents of our own fervid imagination or are we simply copy-cats, faint echoes of some distant fugue? For one thing is certain, with the dead-end of metaphysics – the belief in some divine origin, some pure originated past – there also comes the death-knell of the individual.
An 18th century concoction, the individual was defined by the Ego. ‘Know Thyself’ Immanuel Kant declared. ‘I think therefore I am’ said Rene Descartes. But it was Jacques Lacan, in the throes of a deconstructing and self-destructing 20th century, who upped the ante by stating, ‘I think where I am not, I am where I do not think’. Always never quite where we think we are, at odds with ourselves, caught in a reverb, we find ourselves bouncing back and forth, unable to settle in any finite groove.
Today we live in what Sven Christian dubs an ‘ism-schism’, a time in which categorical imperatives are withering, in which, after Talking Heads, we’ve stopped making sense. And we like it like that, or like to think that we do, because chaos and meaninglessness, or the excess of meaningfulness, is our new arrogance.
The Ego, viral, schizophrenic, now reigns madly supreme. Narcissus has become hydra-headed. We mainline personae, get off on masks. Our bodies are no longer temples, our minds no longer sacrosanct. Overwritten, written over, copies of copies, our bodies, plagued and plagiarised, are but the harbingers of a pale being long-ago exiled from itself.
It is not existentialism of which I speak. Jean Paul Sartre’s notion that existence precedes essence was attached to a nauseous reflux, something which we today no longer feel. There is no bitter taste in our mouths. We don’t possess any self-consciousness, having long forgotten what it means to feel awkward, out-of-sorts, or alienated.
If this is indeed the case, then what are we to make of O’Flynn’s ‘timekeepers? What time are they keeping? Whose time? Are his ‘keepers’ the deranged markers for the end times? Are his ‘New Gods’ but the fall-out of a world without a God whose aftermath Nietzsche predicted as the Twilight of the Idols? Or are O’Flynn’s keepers the markers of new age of idolatry, and therefore not the progenitors of an apocalypse but the survivors of an ‘end’ that came and went, a time unrelenting, unending, and utterly dismissive of any conscious attempt to make sense of things?
If O’Flynn’s reversed paintings are timely this is so because the artist has refused the Ego’s grand self-proclamations. He is no Narcissus transfixed by himself, no vainglorious serial portraitist but someone who would cut through the hall of mirrors and expose the monstrous pandemic that is narcissism, the better to reveal the pathos at the core of our accelerated senselessness.
Saturated, glistening, O’Flynn’s bodies-as-signs are, after Giorgio Agamben, ‘bio-political’. They are canny ciphers for the indecipherable – the body as thing, as attitude, as adjective and metaphor, as Idea and the bankruptcy of that Idea. Their appeal resides in their ability to crank open a vacuum which, while abhorrent, cannot be shirked. There’s a pleasure, O’Flynn suggests, in seeming nothingness.