Layered Messages

Terri McManus visits Gary Shaw’s exhibition Locution(s)

The vivid, colourful compositions of Australian artist Gary Shaw’s exhibition Locution(s), displayed at the Old Museum Gallery Belfast, have an almost hypnotic effect on the viewer.

Density of pattern and primary colours dominate the canvas, creating a vibrant, riotous ocular display. At first glance one could mistake the pieces for controlled computer generated imagery, a ‘Magic Eye’ construction of sorts, which produce a 3D optical illusion on a 2D canvas.

Ancillary scrutiny reveals that this picture of seemingly random, controlled shapes is actually a collection of loosely-constructed symbols that contain thousands of painted hand-rendered flags, based on the International Maritime Signal Code.

The International Maritime Signal Flags is a standardised system of icons that enabled ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication, used before the advent of modern communication technology.

Individual flags represent a letter of the alphabet or convey a standard meaning. The artist has implemented this graphical language system to convey textual messages on one level, while the brain processes the two-dimensional visual patterns and colours into a three-dimensional picture.

Shaw uses the flag vernacular to spell out words, phrases and key texts of formalist art theorists in an iconic state that supports their critical emphasis on the visual aspects of the work, rather than any narrative suggestion or theme that the painting may present.

Formalism, as a critical stance, came into being in response to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (especially the painting of Cézanne), in which unprecedented emphasis was placed on the purely visual aspects of the work.

The primary colours of the graphical signal flags are arranged via the message content which results in combinations of complementary colours. As opposites on the colour triangle, the colours react off one another visually when placed alongside each another.

This effect creates energy, or a visual 'vibration', that demands the viewers’ attention. Shared with the consequential pattern, which is dictated by the translation, several of the paintings produce a special kind of pattern that is almost self-similar, or in other words, the building unit flag contained in the pattern resembles the overall completed shape of the finished composition.

Existing cultural patterns often use self-similarity to suggest infinity and visually express other philosophical and existential concepts. Examples include Aboriginal, South American, Islamic, African and Celtic artifice.

For a small percentage of the viewing public, these paintings open up a dialogue between them and a potentially unfamiliar artistic concept. Conversely, Shaw has exhibited in galleries within communities that have varying degrees of maritime knowledge and has encountered feedback from some visitors who, because of their marine heritage, have been able to decipher the hidden messages contained in his work.

Shaw’s propensity to leave some of the work untitled or vaguely labelled enables multiple reading levels for every type of viewer, from the study of visual aesthetics to the coded language.

Terri McManus is Associate Lecturer in Foundation Studies of Art & Design at the University of Ulster.