John Latham

Although John Latham writes profusely about “event structure,” he has not ventured to enact his theorizing as event. He has created a mass of abstract speculations—verbalized concepts—as well as a traditional body of speculative abstractions—that is, artworks. The entire gist of Latham’s project is geared toward the abolition of differences both between analytic theory and intuitive synthesis and between discursive language and symbolic presentation. His writing depends heavily upon physiomathematical theory of a most specialized and recondite nature; moreover, the full appreciation of his artworks depends on a certain degree of art-historical sophistication. As a form of practice aimed at bridging the gap between science and art, Latham’s work seems to fail. That is not to say that it fails as art; however, its value lies, not in the design of new kinds of synthetic world-conceptions, but in expressing the anguish of precisely not achieving such a holistic synthesis.

Latham is a fairly traditional expressionist, but his metaphysical hunger and totalizing, cosmological ambition is unusual for a contemporary British artist. Latham’s recourse to the likes of “catastrophe theory” or Stephen Hawking’s cosmogenetic theories of “the first five seconds” seem an attempt to incorporate metaphysical symbols under the banner of the new physics. If Latham does have an English forerunner, it is not his often-invoked Blake, but the 19th-century magus Robert Fludd, whose work describes and illustrates a sequence of cosmogenetic moments in emblems comparable to those in the artist’s Story of the RIO, 1983, a row of images progressing from a dot (a “least event”) to a matted cluster of real stuff. However, unlike, say, El Lissitzky or Paul Klee, Latham proceeds not from chaos to cosmos but from nothingness to chaos. His project might be called “The Genesis of Entropy,” for the cluster materializes as mangled mechanics skewered through a mess of charred books. In the new works, glass seems to stand for pure space, through which the irredeemably inadequate and conflictive artifacts of humanity—above all, its countless books and theories—hurtle and collide to form absurd and squalid space stations, all of them betrayals of an ontogenetic moment. The appearance in one glass pane of Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time, 1988, hardly counters this negative impression but seems simply one more stray spark, if a little more precise than the others, from the bonfire of libraries.

Far from presenting any kind of new prospectus, every one of Latham’s works reiterates the same anguished emblem of an original fall into the sin of materiality and knowledge, leaving humanity forever divided, partial, and alienated. Latham is to the mind and its knowledge what Francis Bacon is to the body and its being, the obsessive speculator of a terrible pathos. Yet he seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge and accept this limited but tragic calling.

Brian Hatton