On March 3, 2014, if you happened to be in the vicinity of Gowanus, Brooklyn, you could visit the offices of Cabinet magazine, eat shepherd’s pie and drink Brooklyn Brewery beer, and—for the first thirty-two people to sign up—participate in ‘Triathlon’, billed as ‘a knockout competition hosted by Oliver Clegg, in which you can test your skills in backgammon, chess, and foosball against some of the best in our fair country’. The foosball tables, designed by Clegg, featured players modelled on himself and his wife, Natasha Chambers, both unashamedly nude (with Clegg’s goalkeeper also openly erect, like a tribal figurine; this avatar, in gold, also topped the winner’s trophy). The pieces in the finalists’ chess set were derived from bricks and floorboards salvaged from the artist’s former studio in London, which had been demolished. The pamphlet given to competitors was imprinted, on its verso, with an essay concerning the uses of play in psychoanalysis. Was ‘Triathlon’ play, then, or was it serious? Was it about the artist, or was it about the players? It was, as so often in Clegg’s work, all of these at once.
Ludic references, biographically loaded materials, and processes of dismantling, reconstruction and/or reuse have governed Clegg’s art from the outset. What has evolved, in sync with the vagaries of the artist’s own life and with larger cultural shifts, is the meaning of their intersection, with results that are both critical and affecting. If you clasped the handles of that foosball table in Brooklyn, you were connected—to whatever degree—with the currency of human interaction in the digital age, the usefulness of self-designed systems for those without faith, the functions of structural ambiguity, and more. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves already.
Clegg’s early paintings, made on his MFA in London after he’d studied History of Art and Italian, loop us back to gameplay, a theme that would filter in and out of his art over the ensuing years. Here we also begin, pointedly, with material things that have gone out of action; that have been replaced, if not always improved upon. In Goofy (2006), the ‘canvas’ is a used art school drawing board, bearing all the scars of its lifespan: quick doodles, smears of old paint, scraps of masking tape, ghostly white tides where a previous student has gone off the edges of the paper they’d worked on. ‘Drawing studio’ is written on it (upside down, since the board’s been inverted) and the fragment of imagery here also, in a way, depicts a world turned upside-down. For near the centre is a painting of a toy figure of Disney’s Goofy—it looks like a bendy rubber figurine, it looks old—which lies prone, arms out, strongly shadowed, tossed aside. Goofy might be dead. Or he might, if used, come back to life.
What connects drawing board, toy figure and oil paint, in the early twenty-first century, is an air of melancholy redundancy, of anachronism. Oil, a medium that will do whatever you want with it once you engage, is less likely to be the art student’s choice of technology today than, say, Final Cut Pro or even a social media network itself. Children, meanwhile, don’t want figures to invest with life; they want iPads to swipe at. They want, or they’re being encouraged to want, something already formatted and constricting, not something that scales up to an imagination that grows as you go. And so something formative established over centuries—the role-play that comes with physical toys, not a limitation but a freeing to explore and expand one’s own mental capacity—is being lost, trashed. Just as something is likely lost if, as is the case at most art schools, students don’t learn to draw anymore, don’t engage with the real, non-screen world through the act of limning it. (An anecdote: a fine art lecturer friend of mine recently encountered a student who was drawing trees based on jpegs. He suggested the student go out and look at some actual trees. The student pointed at the screen. ‘That is a tree,’ he said.) To quote the title of a 2008 oil-on-drawing-board work by Clegg, featuring a halted, upside-down toy truck with its string trailing off like a noose, All Change is Not Growth, All Movement is Not Forward.
However, this isn’t the full import of this morphing series of work. If technology is the atheist’s religion du jour, old religion is not gone either. It’s hard to avoid the fact that we live in increasingly fundamentalist times, and arguably both religious dogma and an increasingly monocultural online realm serve as ways to block thought and stifle the imagination. Given that Clegg was making work just as the Internet began to dominate the secular realm, and given that he had been educated in a strongly religious school, going to church every day, was confirmed at sixteen, and then had studied Italian art history, it’s not surprising these twin imperatives came to haunt his work; not surprising, either, that he twinned them, increasingly explicitly. After a couple of years working on drawing boards, Clegg expanded his repertoire of repurposed supports to include dismantled church pews, church donation boxes, church doors and prayer desks, as well as taken-apart liquor and beer crates, and school desks, and his figures began to move from Donald Duck, hand puppets etc al to stringed puppets of Noddy, Goofy (again), Pierrot, and the occasional human skeleton—plus a malevolent-looking Jack-in-the-box and a beatific Madonna—and the puppeteer’s apparatus, crossed sheets of wood connected to the string, here clearly resembles a cross.
This body of work, then, arrays itself against a continuum of dubious, domineering faith. The very fabric of it is drawn from sites of inculcation and indoctrination (or, on occasion, escape from worldly pressure into unholy spirits), and the toys are downed but charged with potential reuse, if a hand will reach out for them. Resurrection, if you like. Here, though, we broach the ambivalence that frequently powers Clegg’s work. On the one hand, he laments the loss of certain traditions that foster skill, like drawing. On the other, he bucks against being told what to do. A church is most useful, for him, as something to paint on once it’s been smashed up; ditto—and, of course, not unrelatedly in his case—a school, unless it’s a school that allows for drawing. How to square this circle?
Perhaps by saying that independent thinking includes the freedom to appreciate certain kinds of tutelage, if not necessarily all, and certainly not those which serve to cramp the mind. And by saying, furthermore, that even a broken desk is a physical thing, something that carries life and history within it, and that encounters with the material world, and with those emotive traces, can be highly articulate, complex and open-ended, since you may well feel differently about schools, religion, life drawing and outmoded-looking toys, or have not examined your feelings about them. In the counterpoint, the disjuncture, between image and object, a breathing space opens up. This space is valuable for the artist who wants their work to be alive, open to fresh interpretation even for the maker, but is also a gift—an exit from the doctrinaire, from the editorialised—for the viewer. You can play in its darkness, however seriously.
Outside of their specific resonances, Clegg opted for found supports in order to see if he could wrest the beautiful from the unpromisingly discarded, from what might seem strongly resistant to beautification. (His art is also embedded in awareness of art history, his formal decision here collapsing together the oil-on-wood tradition of classical altarpieces with the postmodern stylistic flights of Sigmar Polke and his acolytes.) Clegg’s decision to augment his range of supports from the original drawing boards, which he did for three years until 2012, was also driven by pragmatism. He wanted to make larger paintings, but he didn’t want to work on canvas and the drawing boards he’d been using only came in two standard sizes. This is relevant because it reminds us that art, as much as the biography-ditching New Criticism would have had it otherwise, is shaped by contingency and real-life change as much as by anything else.
Clegg’s father died in 2009, a fact that might usually be incidental to a reading of an artist’s work, except that the artist in this case increasingly thinks it has been decisive, and it does seem to reflect and reroute the thematic of dismantling and reusing that underwrites Clegg’s work. However much weight you place on personal events, it’s clear that there’s a hinge of sorts in his work, in which changes happen within the paintings and then, subsequently, the practice expands to take in an increasing range of media and formats. Breaking down, at this point, segues into its opposite—perhaps not unrelated to the likelihood that losing one’s father will, for the son, refocus questions of what one wants to achieve in life (the clock ticks more audibly after) and what one stands for. These are questions that can be explored, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, through an art practice that expands them beyond the personal.
In 2010, at the outset of this development, Clegg painted S.O.S, a three-part work on drawing boards. In these, as in a comic-strip sequence, a double-thickness wall of coloured blocks stands, then is knocked over, and then is annihilated further, to the point that some of the blocks are reduced to mere sketchy outlines. Destruction is voiced, pointedly, in the language of games—the kind of games, unlike modern Lego, where you’re encouraged to build new shapes, any shape you want—and meets the possibility of reconstruction. For Zugzwang (2010), an anxious and chiaroscuro-heavy self-portrait made a few months after his father’s death (a period in which Clegg became strongly atheist), he painted on a tessellation of fourteen chessboards. Being in ‘zugzwang’, in the argot of chess, means being forced to move, while knowing that the move will weaken your position. Again, parental death unmoors you, but you have to move into the black: mourn, face up, remake yourself.
What you architect afterwards is not the same. The pieces may be identical, or some may have vaporised, but the molecular structure is irradiated and switched about by loss. You’re what you were before, but different. Think of games this way: as something that passes through the mirror and, in the looking-glass world on the other side, is different. In Clegg’s early work, play is a counterpoint within a kind of lament for the haptic, the hands-on. The toys and games don’t get played with; they’re not real, they can’t be touched. Later, as in ‘Triathlon’, that won’t be the case and they’ll become something else: a microcosm of a social world structured neither by religion or technology.
Of course, the above is a reading, strained through biography. It’s quite possible to read Clegg’s work another, less explicitly personal way. To say that, throughout, his work is ghosted by constraints upon the imagination that have to be analysed, worked through and broken down; that those constraints can take the form of an authority figure or a digital interface; and that human interaction, perhaps of the sort that comes across a chessboard, might counter it. Chess, indeed, which recurs in this narrative up to the present, had manifested in Clegg’s art several years earlier, during a project for London’s Freud Museum, in a sculptural chess set featuring resin replicas of Freud’s cherished antiquities, Everytime I Think I Have Discovered Something I Realise A Poet Has Been There Before Me (2008). This is fitting since Freud’s work is nothing if not an attempt to understand the formation of the human psyche, and Freud’s text ‘Creative Writers and the Daydream’—which was Clegg’s starting point for his exhibition—finds Freud comparing the role-playing of children to conformist adults enmeshed in trivial routines, and surmising that it is artists and writers who continue to pursue the freedom of role-play.
Some play more explicitly than others, of course. Marcel Duchamp famously, if only outwardly, gave up art for chess. One might see both as allowing a great deal of lassitude within a codified structure (and certainly one might see Duchamp’s works as chess moves within the genteel world of modern art, slyly pointing up its conservatism). In Clegg’s hands, as gameplay moves to the fore of his work—culminating, thus far, in actual games between actual people, a fully social art—one might see both art and game collapsing together under the sign of the systemic. His art is nothing if not aware of the art that’s come before, making moves in relation to it. A 2013 photograph exists, for example, of the artist and his partner playing naked on their bespoke foosball table, a clear echo of the famous photograph of Duchamp playing chess with a nude woman; the finalists’ chess set in ‘Triathlon’, meanwhile, was modelled on Duchamp’s Buenos Aires set, which he designed himself and had made with local Argentinian craftsmen.
More than this, though, the conversation Clegg’s art takes up with the past—with classical painting and with modernist and postmodernist art, from Duchamp to his neon works to his Warhol-echoing self-portraits on US money bags—might be seen to constitute, itself, an alternative, self-designed system to live through, the artworld as a place where one might be relatively free yet work within limitations that give your moves meaning and contingent value. ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s,’ William Blake famously wrote. One might create that system in a relativistic manner, aware that a system is all it is, a scaffold to get through life, not a set of truths. That system might, in part, simply define itself in the negative. In place of the hang-ups about nudity that legendarily derive from Adam and Eve, picture yourself and your partner naked. In place of a culture that invites people to communicate only through screens and fake identities, bring them together.
Another arc has structured Clegg’s work thus far: a progressive expansion from the wall—paintings—to the open space of the gallery—sculptures—to the open space of the world—social events. When he moved to New York, he began working increasingly in three dimensions, beginning with The Owl Is Not What It Seemed (2013), an open birdcage, dangling from an angled metal pole, fashioned from disassembled chairs sourced from Norwich State Asylum, Connecticut, which had been demolished sixteen years before, accompanied by a silkscreen print of a downed owl. The title adapts a famously elliptical line from Twin Peaks, which, in David Lynch’s beloved TV series, is never clarified; here the owl, like one of Clegg’s puppets or toys, could be dead or just waiting. How you parse that, in relation to the owl as a symbol of wisdom, and to the asylum as a constraining institution, is up to you. As is whether you bring One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest into it. (If you fleetingly see Jack Nicholson here, he recurs in All Work and All Play (2013), which features both Norwich furniture and mutates the famous phrase that Nicholson’s character writes, over and over, in the default asylum that is the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Clegg is, by his own admission, obsessed with cinema.)
Brick dust and wood from the Norwich asylum served as the materials for another transmutation: All good ideas arrive by chance – said Max (2013), a set of chess pieces on a handmade board (the wooden pieces made from an asylum door, the board from a window, suggesting possible escape), its title quoting Max Ernst and its form mirroring the chess set Ernst made in 1944. A parallel work, made from brick dust and wood from Clegg’s destroyed London studio (and the aforementioned finalists’ board used in Brooklyn), was titled All chess players are artists – said Marcel (2013). Evidence suggests that the first move into real-world activity came when Clegg played chess—‘for money’—in Union Square, New York, using the Ernst board, shadowing Duchamp’s own public chess activities and nesting, if you like, his system of living within Duchamp’s own. The movement into games, in turn, came when Clegg arrived in America after living in an isolated manner in Cornwall for several years and saw how deeply the Internet, and social media particularly, was isolating people, replacing one-to-one encounters with low-stakes negotiations between avatars.
So here he is, out in the park, no avatar, with his chessboard. Chess is life in microcosm: strategy, planning ahead, knowing when to sacrifice now something for long-term interests. It’s living within an external set of rules, but ones that don’t have the damaging force of, say, religious injunctions—a set of rules you might choose to live by once you’ve rejected the idea that life has a transcendent meaning. Chess is also, of course, social. What could be realer, in the digital era, than playing a game with a stranger? (One thing that could be realer, Clegg’s art suggests, is playing a game fabricated from materials redolent of a controlling institution, bringing not just present-ness but history into the mix. Call it redemption. What we have here is not an embodied argument but a poetics of intersecting aspects: real-world communal experience versus solitary digital remove, breaking things down and remaking them, and a background condition of constraint and confinement. You can move among those aspects and recombine them as you like, like moving opposing pieces around a board—this is part of the freedom of Clegg’s work.
What else recurs, recombines, gives this practice a securing internal structure of its own? Language, the Word, shows up at the outset—the scribbled ‘Drawing Studio’ on the boards—but not until a few years later, in works like Don’t Even Ask (2010), do engraved phrases begin to appear on Clegg’s wooden frames, looking not unlike the texts on hymnal boards (indeed, one of them, Logos, Ethos, actually is a hymnal board) but with rather different resonances. They bifurcate meaning. Don’t Even Ask offers both a refusal and a sigh, Honest to God (2011) has a couple of readings, and by the time of Fuck the World / For the Win (2013)—rendered as the popular hashtag ‘FTW’, which can signify either, and carved into a paint-splattered studio chair—the text marks Clegg’s full engagement with social media and its privations. Reverse Psychology, from 2012, implicitly reflects the artist’s education, staging a conflict between image and object: it featuring the Freudian triumvirate of ‘Ego’, ‘Id’ and ‘Superego’ carved backwards into the surfaces of an Edwardian school desk.
In Clegg’s neons, which he began to make partly as a response to being in America, where neon perpetually serves the cause of advertising, words twist plaintive. They refuse to sell. They become gnomic messages in bottles, sent out from a seeming isolation while turning language electric, even nostalgic given the medium and the physicality of the words: see It was the Abyss of Human Emotion (2013) or ARTIFICIAL (2013), each letter spelled out individually on a glass bulb within a glass, a marooning within a marooning. Words, enriched with ambivalence, also matter here because social media is a culture that both dematerialises language and puts it first—Twitter alone piling up, according to 2013 statistics, over a quarter of a million messages per minute—and diminishes it while it also diminishes experience. Its conventions and memes throttle unique thought. See Think B 4 U Write (2012), carved into that supreme melancholy anachronism, the letter rack; or the scything Eating>Thinking (2013) engraved in what looks like a copper church collection plate. Attenuated language, necessitated by the constraint that is a 140-character count, reduces complex feelings to hashtags, friendship to ‘likes’ and followers, and experience to posting images—again, with hashtags—of where you’ve been. What matters is not that you were there, but that you Instagrammed it: see Clegg’s sardonic, blaring neon in the Joshua Tree desert, #IWASTHERE (2013).
The phrase that he’s deployed the most is, perhaps, his most purposefully ambiguous: THE END. In I Hope We Never Die, So Do I, Do You Think There Is Any Chance of It?—the title from dialogue at the end of The Lion in Winter—Clegg took eighty-one birth certificates and, productively destructive once more, cut out from each the letters ‘The End’, spelled out in an end-title from a film made in the year of the individual’s birth, fronting the array with tiers of old cinema seats. It’s evident here that he aims to crack open a widescreen, potentially emotive, humanly connecting space between text and ground. Subjectivity encouraged—thought encouraged—you’re invited to imagine that person’s life as a film, to enter into the space between. The death-and-taxes realities of life, compressed here, couldn’t be further from the escapism of online existence and the idea that we’re all going to achieve immortality by commenting on, or otherwise documenting, our every minor moment and uploading it to the cloud.
Couldn’t be further unless, of course, you’re engaged in the lives of others while they’re actually there. In 2014, at the Brooklyn Museum, for the dinner of the annual Brooklyn Artists Ball, Clegg installed Until the Cows Come Home, a circular table-and-chairs setup in bright Mondrian colours, in which the outer seats spin around so that the social environment is constantly mobile. Here, the attention-deficit, Chatroulette-shaped mindset of a younger generation is seemingly catered for in the real world, and anomie—ideally—goes into reverse.
After comparing such a work to, say, the paintings that Clegg continues to make, one might see him as emblematically post-medium. Few are the artists, however (in fact, he’s the only one I can think of) who are reflexive about the twenty-first-century artist’s expanded tariff of formal options in the way that Clegg is. Stylistic freedom feeds directly back into his art’s theoretic architecture, where it reveals itself as not necessarily freedom at all but, rather, another question, another ambivalence. Choice, though Clegg makes the most of it, can be paralysing: the average citizen of the west today, we know, has the potential to navigate not only hundreds of television and cable channels and hundreds of millions of websites (themselves exploding, as with say Spotify or Netflix or YouTube, into innumerable sub-choices), but also a glittering myriad of ethical positions and prêt-à-porter lifestyle options. The artist’s ‘freedom’ might capsule all of that and wrap it in explicit, neo-existential anxiety. But then, because Clegg’s art always has the possibility to go two ways, a choose-your-own-interpretative-adventure for the viewer, it turns into a meal, or a game, or a burst of aesthetic pleasure; you’ll probably see lights and colours, and you could win a prize, and you just might find a real friend.