The Sleep of Reason: Meaning in Noman’s Land

The inkblot test was developed by the Freudian psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach in 1921. An especially concrete use of the human mind’s tendency to reveal itself by the way it makes meaning, there are no right answers, but you’re always expected to see more than just an inkblot. In Merleau-Ponty’s totalising formulation, humankind is ‘condemned to meaning’.

Meanwhile, in high modernism’s almost teleological march towards pure abstraction, in the would-be canonical Greenbergian view at least, with a Pollock inkblot, we really are expected to see just an inkblot. It’s almost as if, beyond some zenny impulse to shut up the ceaseless babble in our heads, this was an attempt to create an art of consensus, one that would homogenise all our subjective views into a single, unifying zero.

Perhaps I’m extrapolating from an inkblot myself, but I see a sort of collision of these tendencies in Ruth van Haren Noman’s work. Often reminiscent of Auguste Herbin’s early 20th century abstracts, where Herbin suffered rejection for arriving at non-representation ahead of the game, van Haren Noman’s works return obliquely to representation in ways that, one suspects, would have been no more palatable to Herbin’s public. The hope for purity has given up the ghost as a swarm of phantasmagoria insinuate themselves subliminally into the geometric patterning: suggestions of insects, robots, tribal masks, alien landing strips, altar pieces for new age cults.

I can imagine these paintings on the walls of a 60s ad agency like the one in the TV series Mad Men, demons mutely pretending to be tasteful abstractions, while, in the same rooms, Freud’s insights, intended to heal, are being used to manipulate consumers. And in quiet moments the paintings trouble the executives like embodied consciences

They look like the unbidden dreams and mental wanderings of the pure abstractionist, the place where the disavowed returns and slyly turns his elegant nothings into avatars of the irrational. The old uneasy modernist relationship between futurity and primitivism is here, but something more too, modernism’s links to weird belief systems: eugenics, occultism, futurism’s slide into fascism, even dialectical materialism and the descent of 60s idealism into madness, violence and cults. As such, they also rehabilitate modernism’s own disavowed: the Swedish occultist Hilma af Klint with her always mystically signifying abstractions or the Czech ‘outsider’ Anna Zemankova, both of whom, along with Herbin, van Haren Noman cites as influences.

Frederick Jameson says modernism is not pure modernity, but the transition between the past and the future, the moment when magnificent inventions such as the motor car still pass horse-drawn carts in unpaved streets; likewise, he might have said, when reason and scientific progress coexist, sometimes in the same minds, with magical thinking and pseudo-science no more tenable than 19th Century beliefs in phlogiston or phrenology.

These paintings help me put this transition itself in the past, to see it as something now quaint and uncannily odd; not to denigrate its achievements, nor to imagine our own era is particularly clever, but to break the spell of modernist hubris, the power it has to make me think we just missed the brave new world by a whisker. They achieve this by bringing in nothing from the outside, not disrupting modernism through the introduction of ‘impure’ elements, but allowing modernist purity to seem to disrupt itself, imbuing it, somehow, with a sort of insidious delirium or threat – as if, at any moment these compositions, for all their order and hieratic stillness, might seem to breathe.

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John Moseley, London, October 27, 2010