So Different and Yet
Language and Theatre in the work of James Coleman

This article appeared in Circa 17 in 1984. The occasion was the installation of two works, here discussed, at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin.


First page of article in Circa 17, 1984 (p. 18)

‘Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre.’
—(Michael Fried, 1967) 1

‘… over the past decade we have witnessed a radical break with that modernist tradition, effected precisely by a preoccupation with the “theatrical”.’
—(Douglas Crimp, 1979) 2

James Coleman’s lgnotum per Ignatius (1982), recently performed in Ireland for the first time, 3 is constructed around themes which are developed through a number of his works including So different … and yet (1980) and Living and Presumed Dead (1983). The themes include death, inheritance, the belief and morality systems that evolve around these, and how social systems symbolize such outlooks through ceremony, ritual and fetish. In lgnotum per Ignatius these allusions are conveyed through the voices and gestures of two actors who perform on an elementary stage. Coleman discusses this and other of his recent work in terms of embracing the theatrical and contrasts these with performance art. In this respect he attracts a good deal of critical consternation, compounded by the complexity of the works themselves which are structured as montage utilizing a variety of elements rather than straight narrative. It is Coleman’s position in regard to visual art and theatre that is in question, and intrinsically related to this are the meanings and implications of the works.

There are two considerations here. The first is the general development in the visual arts particularly since the early seventies towards time-based work; then Coleman’s relationship to this and the extent to which he has veered away from more recognisable visual art forms. His development straddles the period from the late sixties when he was a painter, and when painting predominated. The commitment to plastic art forms as the appropriate modes and the fear that this might be losing ground is explicitly stated in Michael Fried’s arguments. In his defence of what he referred to as ‘pictorialism’ in the work of those abstract artists he supported, Fried expressed alarm at the advance of an attitude he regarded as situated between the arts, that is in ‘theatre’. The distinction he drew upon is that the essential nature of visual art is its integrity as an object with its internal relationships—pictorialism—but when art negates its objecthood and when through negation the subject ceases to be contained within the ‘shape’ of the artwork, the subject becomes the spectator. It is in this situation that art pertains to theatre because the encounter is merely a temporary phenomenon. In Fried’s view this is a loss of ‘presentness’ and is ‘non-art’.

Fried was criticizing the development of Minimal Art in the United States in the late sixties though in retrospect we can see a much more radical extension towards the ‘theatrical’ with performance art which during the 1970s assumed major importance as an avant-garde movement. It is from this perspective that Douglas Crimp announces the victory of the theatrical, in the sense of temporal condition, and denounces Fried’s concern with the essential quality of the individual medium as a concern to make art an ‘ontological category’, and the concept of presentness as a desire for a ‘transcendent condition’ that is no longer authoritative.

p20 p21
Circa 17, 1984, pp. 20 – 21

According to Crimp, in reference to the younger generation artists he wishes to advance, performance art indeed extended art to ‘theatrical dimensions’ and a generation of artists had this ‘crucial formulating experience’. Now, however, these artists have, ‘quite unexpectedly, reinvested in the pictorial image’. If Fried’s interest is to affirm value in abstract relationships and to make a case for abstract artists, Crimp wants to insist that the attraction of what he calls ‘pictures’ is because of the fascination, desire, and fetishization of a fragmentary moment frozen by the photographic medium, and it is on this basis that he discusses the work of Sherman, Goldstein and other New York based artists. Crimp shifts emphasis from abstract relationships to images appropriated from popular culture, and shifts viewer perception of the art object from philosophical categories to psychological categories.

To a large extent both attitudes reflect a nostalgia for the static art object. This despite an on-going, if marginal, tradition of time-based work since the Futurists stated the concept of time as a consideration in twentieth century life. The Formalist attitudes that prevailed in Modernist thinking undermined that tendency and it is this platform, which reached full expression in the 1960s, from which Michael Fried speaks. Yet the abstract art that Fried championed contains within it the principle of the physical nature of the work which is precisely what was developed in Minimal and Performance art. Twentieth century avant-garde art has concentrated on this principle at the expense of narrative and symbol, of absences. The physical nature of the art object, or the performer in the case of performance art, is given precedence over the allusions of representational art. Fried and Crimp return to the physical properties of visual art even while their interests lead in opposite directions.

At the same time these two critics are trying in their different ways to sustain or reaffirm value for visual art. Where Fried applies an abstract, philosophical interpretation which rejects transitory, environmental considerations, Crimp recognizes the secularized, media environment of the late twentieth century and how recent performance art mimics the material concerns of western society. This is very much the dilemma of contemporary art; whether indeed art can only reflect these material conditions, the logical conclusion of which is negation; or whether art can transcend, apprehend some form or forms of value. Fried’s concept of transcendence can now have little potency because, really, the past two decades have witnessed a further shift away from the view of the artist as abstracted from immediate social considerations. The project for contemporary art is to find a way with social conditions yet avoiding the reductivist anonymity of modernism that was summarized in Minimalism.

There are though other factors which have influenced art away from visual, plastic forms. Just as performance art in the 1970s became very central to avant-garde endeavour, so conceptual art in the late sixties questioned the very basis of art as a visual medium. Conceptual artists proposed that the on-going activity we call ‘art’ is distinct from other activities not so much by virtue of its products, the art objects, but by the ideas that are contained, developed and communicated through discourse. In effect conceptual art emerged as a critique of ideas current in art and the critique was the only manifestation by the artists involved. What this signified was that art activity could be verbal discourse as, for example, that published by the Art & Language group. Thus while artists throughout the twentieth century have issued manifestoes and declarations of intent these were made in defence of the visual work produced; now language was all that was produced.

Conceptual art in one of its most radical forms was intended as an analytic enquiry into art concepts. In this conceptualists were very much under the influence of developments in philosophy where analytical philosophers had established the role of philosophy as inquiry into philosophical concepts. Wittgenstein, and others associated with analytical philosophy, critiqued traditional ontologies and philosophy that ultimately relied upon transcendent premises to explain conditions in the world; here, the objective was to place philosophical concepts in concrete conditions. In visual art Minimalists and Conceptualists attempted similar enterprises from minimalism’s emphasis in the concrete, to conceptualism’s interest in dislodging the aura of art concepts; and it follows why conceptual artists, in their criticism of the abstract art promulgated by Greenberg and Fried, use the model of analytical philosophy. If conceptual art in its radical, language-based form was short-lived, there is a continuation of an anti-metaphysics in the more recent work discussed by Douglas Crimp which appropriates imagery from ‘low’ culture, or ‘popular’ culture.

In this the theoretical influences continue to be derived from a pervasive interest in the study of language and here a number of interests coincide. It was noted that Crimp stresses the psychological conditions of artists’ installations. States of mind are on-going, never static, the study of which represents one of the challenges of contemporary knowledge and a significant means of reflection and analysis is through language. Insofar as contemporary visual artists have expressed interest in this it parallels the desire for change and transformation in time-based art where the audience is invited to experience the work through time as distinct from plastic art. It seems this is a crucial quality, this exploration which is a multidimensional development of art as a means of representing and incorporating experience. This is not, though, the linguistic philosophy influenced enquiry of analytical Conceptualism but reference to the continuum of time and how we apprehend time in overlapping ways. At this point verbal language has a flexibility or malleability which the static artform has not.

Where James Coleman distinguishes his work from performance art is that he shifts from the physicality of visual art to theatre as a psychological space where language is the principal conveyor of thoughts and emotions. His understanding of ‘theatre’ is therefore different to that of Michael Fried since the physical reality of the situation, of the stage, is only the inauguration for entering into other realms and the preconscious. In this respect he is also removed from Crimp’s materialist concerns, and indeed from the prevalent direction of visual art. However, the ‘theatre’ of his recent work is not directly in line with much conventional theatre because what is conveyed through the structure of the work is removed from naturalism and from our everyday experience. In effect he seems to want to transcend contemporary, material experience.

In tracing his development towards this position it is possible to find continuity of idea between the early work, which coincided with Minimalism, and the recent work which uses actors, illustration and music. In tracing the evolution some distinctions may be made. The earlier installations utilize the by now more conventional device of two narratives running simultaneously. The recent works explore internal space, space inside the mind where external events become internalized and role transferral and fantasy mingle. The latter is a logical development of the former because where in earlier works Coleman created spatial situations in which the viewer is forced to make conjunctions (i.e. make sense) between physically separated sounds and images to find whether they are indeed related since, up to a point, they seem to be, now the problem is to find continuum and whether the narrative is really what it was before. The emphasis in the work has changed from disjunctions of external physical space to the external personality—h w we are perceived by others—to internal, psychological space where there is no assurance that the audience ever touches base with any shared, external reality.

There is a very static quality in most of the images Coleman selects. This can be traced to early pieces such as Pump (1972) which is a Super 8 film in continuous loop where the camera is in a fixed position looking down on the process of water being pumped into a bucket. Because the camera is situated close up to the subject the problem for the viewer is to determine what is occurring since, with the transparency of the water, the action is initially almost imperceptible. It is only through viewing repetitions of the cycle that the viewer begins to decipher, make sense, of the image. Thus there are a number of features in this work which become characteristic of Coleman: an almost static quality, or a slow progress of change which eventually turns full cycle returning through the various stages; the conundrum of identification for the viewer; and the discreet but controlled role of the camera. While Pump is about an action in relation to an object—and typical of avant-garde work of the early seventies it is quite impersonal—a similar but much more complex approach is evident in later work such as So different … and yet (1980) where again the camera is discreet with almost unnoticed changes of position, and where psychological change is signified by the action of the actor when she changes her position.

The development between Pump and So different . . . and yet is marked by increasing complexity in both idea and technique. In the original version of Clara and Dario (1975) the space in which the images were shown was a factor in the work. Two slide projections of the heads of two persons, ‘Clara’ and ‘Dario’, were played in continuous cycle, each slide fitting into a wall space calculated in relation to the architecture of the gallery. In this way the physical environment came into play contrasting with the fictional space of ‘Clara’ and ‘Dario’ who are heard through an audiotape and who, seemingly holding a conversation, are construed as characters playing out roles. The interplay between the reality of the installation space and the possibility of illusion through the artifice of the slide image had already been explored by Coleman in works such as Two Seagulls, or One Seagull Twice (1973/74) where he had earlier photographed a seagull or seagulls outside the gallery and then projected two sets of slides in two separate rooms of the gallery. This leaves the spectator caught between the two images unable to determine whether the work involves one seagull or two. Clara and Dario adds the dimension of language and possible conversation in which the spectator is dealing not only with the real time factor of moving back and forth between the images attempting, through memory, to connect a monologue to dialogue. The spectator is confronted with two characters who are talking about past memories of things experienced and mingling past into a present.

Coleman persistently uses devices to ensure the audience scrutinize his works very closely. The visual matching game of Two Seagulls, or One Seagull Twice is combined with an auditory matching game which creates further conundrums. One of his basic references is the illustration from psychology of the duck/rabbit where a network of lines may be read as a picture of either a duck or a rabbit because it is impossible for us to see the picture as both duck and rabbit simultaneously. To a degree this illusory feature of the ways Western culture understands pictures is the paradigm for all Coleman’s work, and it also raises fundamental issues about perception and visual art. It is a parallel illusionism that forms the cornerstone of Fried’s ‘pictorialism’ but where Fried insisted on a more traditional understanding of the meaning of these qualities that indicate his interests in metaphysics, Coleman uses and develops more specifically twentieth century empirical modes of enquiry. Wittgenstein’s explanation of the duck/rabbit phenomenon was that we do not so much see a picture of a duck, or a picture of a rabbit, we see the picture as a duck or as a rabbit. In other words if we did not have some training in reading pictures we could see only a network of lines and it is such cultural formations that teach us the ‘seeing as . . .’ that Coleman is interested in by the way he disturbs these readings. In the later work this involves language formation as well as perception formation, and in the broader sense his work is therefore about how we can assimilate these readings and simultaneously grasp the paradox. It is the mental switches that occur with such experiences and how to create that situation is what Coleman develops.

An example of a work where Coleman confronts the question of equivalence between word and image is Slide Piece (1973). For this he asked a number of writers to describe an image; he then linked the descriptions on audio and synchronized identical slide copies of the original image with the description so that, while the slides are identical, they change at intervals as the descriptions shift from one section of the image to another. Coleman once again demands very close scrutiny of an image because the verbal descriptions are most detailed. Each description is a minutiae of the total and the audio takes the audience in a step-by-step tour of the image in all its surface detail. However the sum of the image is destined to be greater than the descriptive parts because despite the detail of the verbal descriptions these will never achieve a total description of everything contained within the single image. Of course the attempt is futile in the first instance because the slide itself is merely a representation through photographic medium and light projection of a physical situation. If it is absurd to even attempt an adequate verbal description of the image, then the slide is also a re-presentation of something else.

Slide Piece takes Coleman into an aspect of language. The image used is a very ordinary Italian street scene. The foreground shows cars, a petrol station, a few sparse trees leading towards a street with houses on the other side, the trees leading off the frame. There is nothing remarkable in what is contained by the image though this is not to say that it is not a carefully contrived slide. This is confirmed by the nature of the verbal descriptions which pay the same attention to the formal properties as tends to occur in art appreciation—to analysis in terms of the divisions created by horizontals and diagonals, to light and colour. Slide Piece can be understood as an ironic reference to the language used in the study of fine art and how aestheticization occurs; ironic because the street scene is the way it is as a result of arbitrary, pragmatic and economic factors, not by virtue of aesthetic design.

Where Slide Piece refers to artificial language in art appreciation, a later work Box (1977) uses relatively unmediated language, that is, vocal expression spontaneously provoked by an intense experience. Box re-presents one of the rawest of spectacles in Western culture: a world heavyweight boxing championship. It is also a form of ritualized theatre and while it is an actual confrontation rather than simulated or acted, the atmosphere of the situation demands involvement in the action of the fight. Box is based on film footage of the 1926 match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Coleman has not attempted to dramatize or aestheticize the occasion, indeed it is to some extent about its mythology in boxing annals and Irish sporting history where Dempsey is a hero. Instead he selects to ignore the aura surrounding the boxers, which is readymade in popular culture, and to project into regions of the boxer’s mind as he makes the supreme physical effort of the fight. Coleman does this by cutting the film footage, which already seems imperfect to us because of the archaic technical facilities and its age, so that the fight is perceived in flashes of action, interspersed by blackness. He then synchronizes the film loop with grunts, words and ‘heartbeat’ which will approximate the condition of the boxer as he reaches the excruciating state necessary for an athlete to push himself to his physical limits.

But while on this level Box might be a subject that celebrates a supreme physical effort, the imperfection of the film and the pain signified by the blackouts, grunts and words suggest that this is not Coleman’s intention. The occasion of a world heavyweight boxing championship, the absolute effort made by champion and challenger are a reminder that this situation represents the pinnacle of that which our culture celebrates as male virtues—aggression, success, domination. The crucial difference between Coleman and those Postmodernist artists who use still and movie images from popular culture contexts, (i.e. Sherman, Longo, Prince, Goldstein), is that the latter reflect that which is already glamourized through the mass media. Therefore, while Douglas Crimp argues that the New York artists maintain a critical position in relation to their subject their work is about the styles and poses that are the inventions of the media. Box pre-empts the postmodernist interest in popular mythology because Dempsey and Tunney were, in 1926, media creations in that they had to act out their role as ‘champion’ which the media had extended from personal ambition to public ambition, creating an image of the boxers that became part of the self-image. Coleman accepts that social formations are intrinsically related to our individual psychologies. Where the New York media artists foreclose the condition to the role of the ‘individual’ as a media product, Coleman examines the processes through which the social formations enter the psychological formations, and vice versa. The later work is more complex in construction operating in time and space which suggest multiple possibilities in terms of relationships and of narratives.

There is then no sense of a stabilized reality: there are only projections of ourselves and our relationships to others through the mediations of our social constructs. This is how the world is described by theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and Coleman’s recent work mirrors such thinking. His move towards theatre as a medium for his work allows the possibility to extend into these relationships; and it is also a means to concentrate, not so much in cognitive recognition, as in the duck/rabbit context, but in pre-cognitive experiencing on emotional levels. Coleman is not so much interested in theatre as a metaphor of ‘reality’ but in the creation of frameworks where the emotions that are submerged within social structures are released. This confounds the notion that there is a concrete reality and introduces the many dimensions of the formation of the self within cultural formations. In Coleman’s more recent work, the explicitly theatrical work, the situation seems much more stylized, unreal, fantastical. Because of this the audience is led to understand that they are witnessing another level to existence.

These are some of the considerations with which So different . . . and yet (1980) can be viewed. Where the original version of Clara and Dario (1975) juxtaposed the artificiality of the situation of the two characters with the actuality of the specific gallery space, So different … and yet is a performed work for video with a set design that is very consciously staged. In the foreground is a woman lying chaise longue fashion, and obscurely in the background is a pianist at the piano in evening dress and horns on his head. The woman is excessively, even decadently adorned wearing a green evening dress with hair, arms and legs decorated. The action is initiated with speech from a girl which is interrupted by a male voice. Both affect chic French accents. Throughout the narratives (a variety of stories which are interspersed) the pianist plays music that complements the moods which constantly change and are marked by change in the posed, stylized lying positions assumed by the woman. The camera also, but almost imperceptibly, changes the moods by shifts in position, never distancing itself from the woman and never closing on her; it is in response to her. She sometimes appears to be seductive and sexual, sometimes coquettish, always performing behaviour patterns that are for the edification of the spectator. So different … and yet is a play in social manners that has antecedence in seventeenth century theatre and is reminiscent, in its pseudo plots and decor, of 1920s farce. Where Box examined an extreme example of socially constructed attributions of ‘maleness’, So different … and yet enters a world of fickle femininity and the limited expectations of life that that implies: of dressing for the male onlooker, of seduction in an old-fashioned sense, and ultimately, of marriage.

This straightforward interpretation is complicated by a number of plots and sub-plots within the narratives. These range from the woman’s practical concerns about her dress for the dinner party and how many people will sit at table—stereotypical female roles—to her romantic problems, to the intervention of the male, drama at the dinner party, and robberies, shoot-outs, etc. In among all this the woman enters fantasies about the sort of woman she would like to be as idealized version of the role that has been projected already: the manner in which she will accept or reject her suitors, of being swept away by a romantic—and rich-man. This is the stuff of Mills and Boon fiction and is intended as such because this is how popular fictions rewrite life. At the same time, however ridiculous, these are part of our imaginary life since we have read the same fictions since childhood and continue to do so through the media. More importantly the implication is that fictions are merely segregated as diversion and entertainment from the more serious business of life, but that in all areas of life we fictionalize and create roles for ourselves modelled on a variety of other fictions. The models developed are fictions based on fictions, and it is in these ways that Coleman’s theatre operates. In a sense the characters in these works are as ‘real’ as his audience.

While the woman is the main visual and verbal feature of So different … and yet various male figures weave in and out of her narratives. At times romantic fictions give way to thrillers—to stereotypical male fictions—and at times she changes her role from the focal point of the romances to secondary roles beside suave gentlemen and gangsters. In lgnotum per lgnotius (1982) a male and female assume the same stage in a live performed work (Coleman’s other recent work performed before an audience is Now and Then (1981)) though in this the gender of the actors is almost irrelevant since the prevalent atmosphere is death, and it contains messages from absent sources. Here, as in Living and Presumed Dead (1983) 4, there is no time-specific location indeed it is time-less, and while elements of both ancient myth and folklore may be extracted from the overall form these are much more ambiguous than Coleman’s other work. It seems that he now concentrates on these ethereal qualities which are important to the direction he is taking and underline his departure from the concrete, material emphasis that dominates visual art of this century. This is not easy for an audience to assess and an analogy might be the strangeness we experience when confronted with the recreation of early Greek plays where masks, costumes and voices are quite foreign to our expectations of theatre. The upshot is either that Coleman has gone too far, or, his audience may not be prepared to go far enough in accepting these conditions.

lgnotum per lgnotius develops ideas already evident in Coleman’s work such as the concept of the ring within which an enactment takes place (Box) or the lament for the dead (A-Koan, 1978). But there is an overall poignancy and ritualized representation that excludes the humour and colloquialisms of So different … and yet and at the same time the symbolic, nationalist representations in the installations, A-Koan and Strongbow (1978). The felt qualities of lgnotum per lgnotius are on one level of death and decay, qualities that are brought to a celebratory level by the contained actions of the actors, the harmonium music and dramatic lighting. Contrary to the physical decay are the mental constructions conveyed through language by the two actors which, like the music, exists on a plane other than the physical. It is this contrast which seems crucial to Coleman’s ideas, epitomized here as the death of the body while the ‘spirit’ as metaphor has the potential of transcending these conditions. There is, however, no implication that this is what the work is about—transcendence of spirit over body—because the structural disjunctions involved pre-empt any such conclusive interpretation. This returns us to the temporal nature of our readings of the work and the meanings we bring to it; Coleman considers the area between literal reading and metaphorical reading, between what the work appears to be and what hidden meanings might be contained. It is the audience who might make such projections and this, if anything, is Coleman’s subject.

The concentration on the cerebral aspects of death, decay, and the consequences on the living seems an almost anti-twentieth century position and it is this too which makes it difficult for contemporary audiences. Where So different … and yet contains elements of the modern world, this work is much more dense: the stage is blank and empty but for the actors, whose clothing contain no clues as to identity. These are visual analogies to the enigmatic qualities of language and music. As in Coleman’s earlier works, the studied actions of the actors which suggest enactment of ritualized themes, draw attention to the visual nature of what is performed. Coleman again demands perceptual concentration and here, brought to bear, is his procedure of working from drawings in the frame-by-frame method of a film-maker with a story-board. In other words static images play an essential role in the structure of his productions, and the studied poses of the actors have an intensity that relates lgnotum per lgnotius back to the single images of Slide Piece and Pump. If this creates confusion about the status of Coleman’s live performed work as theatre or as visual art, then equally doubts are expressed about his ‘originality’ as an artist because he uses the resources of others so extensively. The narratives of So different … and yet, for example, are a compilation of quotations from novels and he uses actors, musicians, stage technicians and illustrators. Reservations about such utilization are largely the preserve of visual art where the concept of the artist as sole producer still predominates, despite the fact that producers of art objects lose control once the object passes hands. Coleman reverses that process: while he instructs others in the production of the work, he retains control of where it will be shown and under what conditions. In these respects he is similar to a number of contemporary visual artists who use assistants though it is not simply for ease of production that expertise from a number of areas is used: Coleman also wants to unpack his adapted habits in drawing, photography, etc., by playing a low-key role in the images used in the production.

In lgnotum per lgnotius the atmosphere created by stage, lighting and music establish that the audience are witnesses to what is performed; the audience are not in any sense physical participators. This subdued preparation which signifies that the audience should concentrate on what is performed on stage is also a device which filters ordinary, everyday experience. The separation is more extreme in Living and Presumed Dead because of medium and imagery. An illustrator drew up the story elements for this work and these are presented as slide sequence. As is usual with Coleman the production is technically seamless with two slide projectors working to a programme of slide changeover that gives a sense of continuity of imagery, though with very stark linear drawings again creating a very frugal environment for the audience. The drawings minimally imply identities for names mentioned in the story which is delivered on audiotape with interludes of flute music; but because the ‘story’ itself is a mass of constantly changing identity, the audience is not permitted the reassurance of locating any particular identity. Coleman’s only concession to the audience in terms of tactility is the voice of the narrator which, unlike the slide sequence, has depth and tone, as well as expression that locates it in modern Ireland. The effect though is to sustain the audience’s uncertainty of when, who and where. The continuity is of endless struggle, generations of a family contending with death, inheritance and retribution, of good versus bad, in short the bases of story-making through history and cultures. This would suggest that Living and Presumed Dead exists in a fictionalized space, an interpretation reinforced by the strangeness of the medieval-like costumes and emblems used in the illustrations and the names of those in the story. Coleman, however, is concerned not so much with fiction as something removed from what is construed as reality but how experienced doubts and fears can be surfaced in the absence of concrete identifiable space.

Where the earlier work focused on a person or persons as a vehicle for thoughts and emotions, the recent work avoids what could be identification with a character. This is one difference between Clara and Dario, and lgnotum per lgnotius and Living and Presumed Dead; indeed in the latter the narrative involves a series of disguises assumed by those referred to. Thereby, the audience must concentrate on language and gesture and rely on the felt qualities to make sense of these works. Coleman seems to have directed his attention from the projection of the self where a private past overlaps into a present to a level where the past is on a level of social consciousness that reiterates collective fears and ambitions. It is then up to the audience to find personal relevance.

This article posed two quotations by two critics who discussed the position of contemporary visual art, one from the vantage point of the late sixties, the other from the late seventies. The debate that developed as a result of Fried’s statements was revised by Crimp in regard to the issue of the late seventies which was the demise of Modernism, and the emergence of Postmodernist postulates. In this the self-referential tenet of Modernism was challenged and, as Craig Owens states the case, ‘Postmodemism neither brackets nor suspends the referent but works instead to problematize the activity of reference.5 The veracity of this claim or the question of what is involved in Postmodernism may now, in the mid-80s, appear more problematic than was apparent in the late seventies but is nevertheless revealing when searching for clues to James Coleman’s work where the reference is intimated yet beyond grasp because of structural disjunction—or, more correctly, the referent is not so much contained within the work as by the audience.

Coleman’s development has evolved along lines that parallel many of the concerns that feature in postmodernist writings. In his discussion of Cindy Sherman, Craig Owens draws from the psychoanalytic writings of Jacques Lacan. Owens comments, ‘. . . in Sherman’s images, disguise functions as parody; it works to expose the identification of the self with an image as its dispossession, in a way that appears to proceed from Jacques Lacan’s fundamental tenet that the self is an imaginary construct,’ and that this construct disappoints all (the subject’s) certitudes. For in the labour with which he undertakes to reconstruct this construct for another, he finds again the fundamental alienation which has made him construct it like another one, and which has always destined it to be stripped from him by another.’ (Significantly, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan describes mimicry, mimesis, as the mechanism whereby the subject transforms himself into a picture.) 6

A distinction between Sherman and Coleman is that Sherman constructs situations which use images of herself in various poses culled from other sources, (these are not self-images), whereas Coleman uses others, (actors, or illustrators who make the images). In other words there is no single authorship which could be identified as the personality. His use of theatrical situations may well be analogous to Lacan’s concept of the Imaginary, though he has developed from investigation of a subject towards investigation where identity is dissolved within the structure of the work.

Coleman’s work occupies a position that will almost inevitably raise questions of definition. These are not simply a matter of categorization, of whether the work is visual art or theatre but involve coming to terms with work that is radical by the standards of both. Coleman has assimilated in his production developments within radical art of the last decade while at the same time he has remained consistent in his chosen themes. As such he is at a precarious interface in current art practice. This article dwelt on some possible considerations as to why some areas of visual art reject the more traditional mediums of painting or sculpture and the theoretical arguments used in support of the rejection, (and this within the rarefied conditions of art and philosophy that fulfil avant-garde credentials). What is unclear is where this leaves us and what evaluations can be made? Coleman has already given his answer which is that speculations are open-ended and he is therefore cognizant but never fully committed to any specific location.

  1. Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’, Artforum, V, 10 (Summer 1967), p. 21; reprinted in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. G. Battcock, New York, Dutton, 1968, pp. 116-47. All subsequent references are from this article.
  2. Douglas Crimp, ‘Pictures’, October, 8 (Spring 1979), p. 76. All subsequent references are from this article.
  3. lgnotum per lgnotius was performed in Holland (1982) and Portugal (1983), and in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 7-10 June, 1984. This production was performed by Brendan Ellis and Olwen Fouere with music by Roger Doyle and lighting by John Comiskey. References are based on this production.
  4. Living and Presumed Dead was commissioned by the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and the Orchard Gallery, Derry, and installed in these galleries in 1983. It was shown in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 22 May-2 June, 1984.
  5. Craig Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’, Part 2, October, 13, p. 80.
  6. Ibid., p. 78.
  • Dawson, George, ‘James Coleman’ in D. Walker, Without the Walls, Exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1980.
  • Fisher, Jean. James Coleman, Exhibition catalogue, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 1982.
  • Fisher, Jean. ‘James Coleman’, Art Monthly, 49 (Sept. 1981), pp. 17-18.
  • Fisher, Jean. ‘James Coleman and Operating Theatre’, Art Monthly, 61 (Nov. 1982), pp. 11-13.
  • Fisher, Jean, ‘The enigma of the hero in the work of James Coleman, co-published by the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and the Orchard Gallery, Derry, 1983.
The author wished to thank Jenni Rogers of the Douglas Hyde Gallery for her assistance in research for this article.