False Starts

By Shaun Caton

Push Button
To Push Buttons

– Poster on City Road, London, May 2020.

This article has grown from a montage of actual and imagined memories, dream fragments, interspersed with enigmatic objects, augmented by a chorus of simultaneous voices, pieced together without adhesive, in a time of immense shrivelling. It is offered here as a series of incomplete vignettes which should be viewed as erratic snippets, like talismans churned up by the tides, impregnated with unfathomable narratives.

Plastic Bags (1985- )

Post No Ills
Stick No Ills

– Poster on City Road, London, May 2020.

Who collects plastic bags? These eco-unfriendly archaeological anomalies of the future will almost certainly survive us all and last a thousand years or more, encountering the myopic scrutiny of our troglodytic, shuffling descendants with their suppurating sores. What sort of person would spend their time looking for mass produced, scrunched up, bags?  The answer in short, is another version of me.

The earliest plastic bag I possess dates to 1985 and is still used today to contain 80 small Zen ink drawings that I employed in a long forgotten, smoke filled,  decapitated pig’s head of performance, during a particularly existential phase in my progression, when words like ‘neurosis’ and ‘transgression’ were all the rage in the concrete art salons of Hornsea . The transparency of this polythene bag has gradually become opaque, similar to a cataract surrounding an iris. Its surface is incredibly wrinkled and every time I touch it a sort of powdery  residue  turns my hand grey. The fact that this pouch has protected my drawings for so long,  forces me to regurgitate snapshots of a red and black, shaven headed, youthful incarnation seldom glimpsed in obliterated photographs. Such is the imaginative potential engendered by fetishization.

Other bags seem to spell out quite a different craze influenced by the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi – the appreciation of beauty in deterioration and imperfection.  Supermarket carrier bags were originally manufactured in cheerfully vivid colours, so that they would reiterate a positive customer experience. Combined with the tinny, synthesized muzak, played on an endless tape, with the subliminal, come back again message, prompted zombified shoppers in their spotless, futuristic malls, surrounded by plastic plants, to remember their visit in a consumer style nirvana.   Now after decades of atmospheric changes and exposure to ultra violet light, these bags have transformed into pock marked second skins.  Their crummy advertising mottos seem less charged and more ambiguous to our restless screen-obsessed  gaze: ‘It’s clean, it’s fresh, at …’ hesitantly proclaims one, whilst another announces, ‘Savecentre’  with its  cerulean blue, nuclear family  depicted carrying a shopping bag. One 1980’s store bag has 12 parallel cobalt blue bars, like hexagrams stripped of their divination power, surrounding the store logo in  iconic red: Today’s Tesco.  My stash of bags was recently chewed up by mice in the studio, to provide them with shredded nesting materials.

Totally Wired

Modern Dread

– Poster on Kingsland Road, London, July 2020.

A greedy bed bug that lives under my pillow, and regularly sucks my blood,  hurries back and forth in the same way that my finger (cracked pink) weaves gold wire thread through loops and intersections, twisting it this way and that, like an effortless banal scribble recorded  on the back wall of the crimson primordial retina. Wobbling ovals, obtuse oblongs, and flattened figures of 8, delineate fanciful heads with gaping mouths, the armatures of wire totems fashioned under lockdown. Drawing with fine wire is another journey towards an unconscious figuration by a process of chance. One is quite literally, reminded of Paul Klee’s dictum: taking the line for a walk.  Some resemble a tangled mass of binding, a scrotal forest teeming with microbial impostors, an infantile desire to amass. The introduction of red, green, blue, and purple, is similar to the use of crayons in drawing, except this ‘drawing’ takes place in physical space, like an orchestra conductor waving all those surging, invisible notes, into the imaginary ether. Where do all the notes go to?

The impetus for creating wire sculptures derives from painting and collage.  Totemic figures inhabit space, something akin to fetishes, and are aesthetically adorned with found bottle tops, bits of coloured glass, celluloid buttons and aluminium pieces. They also function as shadow totems when illuminated with a powerful flashlight or a profusion of  combined colour beams. The effect is prismatic and mesmerising, as all manner of hues merge and strobe to form the most stunning shadow play on surrounding white walls. In this respect, the wire sculptures utilise principles of urban recycling with optical invention and become phantasmagoria in the minds’ eye.

Doorstep Vendor

One night my doorbell rang. Swaying unsteadily at the foot of the steps was a man breathing a bellyful of sour intoxicating fumes into my face. He presented me with a child’s colouring book, rather the worse for wear, scuffed and tattered, blackened with grease from hands and dribbles of booze. Some of the outline drawings in the book had been chaotically coloured in a faltering, indecisive manner. A few pages had been ripped out, leaving torn stubs of paper as evidence of dissatisfaction. The man explained to me that he needed money urgently and asked me if I wished to buy one of his ‘pictures’. I said that I regretted I could not, as I do not keep cash in the house, but I wished him well with his foray into art. He cheerfully accepted this and crossed the street to unsteadily try another doorbell with renewed zeal.

Mr Moustache Extravaganza

Thei may be called legges of clowtes, as childre make popettis for to play with whil thei be yong.

– The Pilgrimage of the Soul, British Library MS Egerton 615, 1413.

Once upon a time, I acquired a small wooden figurine that I was told came from an Incan  grave in Peru. With its large, baroque extravaganza of a moustache, it is said to represent one of the conquistadors and dates to around 1532-1572. The object has survived remarkably well for 500 years and has a wide crack running through its torso, which could be a wound inflicted by a previous owner in some sympathetic magic ritual involving a malevolent spell and incantation.  On reflection, I wonder if this was a representation of the incoming Spanish invaders carved by an Incan? In our time, there are no other known comparisons of wooden conquistador dolls to be found, so the mystery remains unsolved.

In a copy of the  seminal 1928 book, Children’s Toys of Bygone Days, Karl Grober includes various plates of post medieval toy dolls. I present a few here for comparison and conjecture that the effigy was once a child’s plaything.

Nuremburg Damsel and her crumbling chorus of cohorts:

Terracotta toy doll, circa 1450

Originally published in Toys of Bygone Days, Grober, 1928. Plate:

Pewter profane ‘phallus’ badge c.1475, found near the river Thames.

Pewter (tin alloy) profane badges were manufactured in the German speaking low countries during medieval times. People wore them pinned on hats and cloaks as symbols of ribald humour, in an era when carnivals included overt sexual exhibitionism (exposing genitalia for shock value) lewd and bawdy jokes, poems, rhymes and stories, as part of the standard repertoire. They may have been purchased during carnivals as ornaments of outrage, souvenirs of sexual deviation, and expressions of defiance against the oppressive church and state (which had its own jiggery pokery going on behind the ivy clad cloisters). In this example, which has survived remarkably well, a roaming phallus in stockinged  legs pushes a wheelbarrow transporting much smaller baby penises. Whilst the exact meaning of this badge is now lost to us, we can surmise that it symbolizes male virility and sexual prowess. The wearer of  this brooch wished to be seen as sexually active and robust.

The Damsel’s Dream: As recorded with a needle on vellum disc

Nuremburg damsel with wreathed earphones, braided hair, what do you hear?   Interdimensional crash helmet, full of mistletoe vistas and woebegone fanciful critters. Call them creatures, with their bobbing mandibles busy at the pulley and spinney. Unexpurgated trickle of the bistre tideline, alongside the gap toothed chicanery of the Bartmann flask, a cobalt blue speckled Bellarmine, spouts counter hexes against witchery inked on the blocks.  Widdershins: lore of the wodwose. Thrice round the rondule we dance.

Hymn to the dark. Having lived in the mud for 500 or more summers, we now inhabit the sequestered corner of a gallery, inside a sterile, temperature controlled vitrine, along with our amputee companions. With only the most imperceptible of bugs for company, we make conversation through eyes that peer at and into us. Palpable missives clawed in bug death powder, hieroglyphs from the hinterland, sprinkled round our slow motion granular decomposition. Strange news of the eye idol clan whispered from afar.

The liquid gaze of strangers: poring over my countenance for a nanosecond, captures a likeness on some infernal contraption, then  saunters over to the next exhibit/prisoner and awaits a makeshift brain transplant. Graffiti of the borrowed hollow, knotted in hourly phases of the bedraggled figure 8. In cracks between dimensions, our chittering and chattering splinters into an epiphany of expansion and contraction. Use of masks and wigs – scree from frozen hair rolls into the cracks. Is this the Fraternity of the imbecile?

Eat me uncooked as I am. Recompense the gleeman. Unbridled momentum is the loudmouth. Tell me his name. Sallies forth from the gut, to pilfer and plunge in an unscene underbelly. Now I swallow black. Something adorns the table. A manikin made from animal bones. Driven ghostwards in the dream, I am not talking along the bloodwire but it dreams all this through me. Loopholes in a rotting mappa mundi. We are envoys from nobody’s nocturne. All the time, the oculus, the quintessence of a connoisseur, is also a purveyor of shite and tat. Pleas of the dead are scraped on a tally stick, plumbing the silt of the dredge, from whence we came and where we must all surely return.

Living Bird Dolls

From the same book, a curious illustration entitled, Figures made to move by means of living birds. During the 16th and 17th centuries captured wild birds were dressed in dolls clothes and outfits, so as to appear real as they wriggled and writhed in the hands of their juvenile captors.

Black Slug, Full Stop.

A large black slug glides along its own slime superhighway, over cracks in the paving stones,  round tufts of grass inexorably onwards, towards the kerb’s edge. Coiling inwards in a spasm it forms a perfect full stop. Here, at the precipice we devise a recipe for the future, as yet undigested. Shall we carry on a bit further or stay put? When the creative dynamo of the imagination is running on empty what can possibly follow?

London UK, April-October 2020.


The  beautiful photograph of the pewter profane badge was taken by the wonderful London based photographer, Hannah Smiles.

I do not provide a glossary for unusual words. Strangeness is to be cherished.

Nor do I provide a bibliography as I abhor academic essay structures.

Information filters to the curious.

This article has been written in fits and starts throughout the year. Many of the truths are abject lies embellished with a modicum of the truth.