This is the full transcript of a talk I did on Tuesday 21st June 2016 at ODD curated by Rachael Lawe. The talk is an extended narrative from a page in my diary where I relate several encounters with art, film and music to ideas about surface, horror and New York.

“This talk is a talk about a day. A day when I thought a lot about surface.

The 14th June 2016.

The idea came from meeting Catherine, who did the jeans talk last month in The Strand book store, in the fashion section where I had got stuck browsing one of the Satorialist fashion photography books.

‘Street style’ is of course the public face of New York, the make up on the culture here. Its pretty skin hides the dirt and mess that is the bones and sinew of New York’s infrastructure and social welfare problems.

If it can, contemporary fashion photographs use the dirt and trash as backdrops, throwing the well-dressed model into stark relief.

The subway station looking as though it hasn’t been cleaned since it featured in the movie The Warriors (Nostrand Avenue), the now demolished White Castle on Metropolitan Avenue or the dive bar that draws no patrons but is endless used as a film and fashion location (Vazac’s Horeshoe Bar on Tompkins Square park; The Godfather, Crocodille Dundee, Law and Order, Jessica Jones, Chanel, Vogue, Prada).


And finally of course The Strand bookstore, here’s Christie Turlington browsing the very shelf where I talked to Catherine and suggested to that I’d do a talk about 14th June. Starting as I have with New York’s favorite surface. The thin layer of textile and fiber that we feebly hope will identify us as worthy, and the rest of the world as lacking.

I got up at 8 and got dressed. Sluggish on this gray New York morning I made my way to work. That day it happened to be at a design gallery in Chelsea.

Getting off at 23rd Street station with every other art worker I followed the crowd to Joe’s coffee and eventually the gallery.

While walking I thought about the history of Chelsea, the warehouses, the decaying wooden posts once supporting a dock or jetty, the lost dance clubs of the 80s and the endless restaurants opening and closing, themselves resembling vehicles coming and going. Like fashionable Red Cross vans, arriving, opening their doors, distributing food, and leaving the conflict as it was when they arrived.

Chelsea like the whole of New York is just a string of facades, here today and gone tomorrow, constantly renovated and rented; their histories remade/remodelled.

There is always some entertainment in walking past businesses that are fakes, imitating other histories.

A fake library, a fake French bakery, a fake English tea room. New York is its own special theme park. Once a real cosmopolitan melting pot it’s now a huge stage set with the squeaking boards replaced every week.

Another business pushed through the unforgiving revolving door.

Then work starts and I spend the day filling holes, white washing walls and generally making the space look as if nothing had ever been there. Art handlers are a bit like Harvey Keitel’s The Wolf in Pulp Fiction. Professional erasers, but less formally dressed and hopefully with cleaner consciences.

New York is the epitome of denial through surface. Even though we know there is always something monstrous lurking behind the glamour, we enjoy the glamour. One of New York’s best assets is to show a constantly brave face through adversity, even if it creates that adversity itself.

After a morning going slowly snowblind from staring at the expanses of white emulation I was asked to hang this painting.


It’s by Robert Grant Smith McDonnell and is of a Douglas Passanger Aircraft painted in 1954.

I have always liked these 1950s advertising paintings, a natural precursor to photorealism and I have always especially enjoyed their uncanny failure.

Their failure to really capture the glamour and excitement of air travel.

Paint will always look like paint and this surface instead of transporting you into a luxurious fantasy is just a badge of corporate identity trying to hide one of the worlds most environmentally damaging industries.

The plane looks distant, hovering, not inviting. The clouds in the painting roll around the edge of the stretcher as if trying to hide the fact it’s a painting but the perfect brush strokes are never perfect enough. The plane sits here, frozen forever. Loosely constructed from pigment suspended in dried oils.

The point of view of the viewer and painter is suspended in space. An impossible corporate fantasy created with a bizarrely thin surface. Both the corporation and the art lack depth.

After the day finished I went to the Strand where I met Catherine and had the brief conversation.

Leaving the fashion section I retired into the photography ‘nook.’

No celebrity models were to be found.

I was avoiding going home and hoping for some inspiration. I have always preferred libraries and markets to Google.

Serendipity never feels random on the internet.

After a few minutes I came across a book of Hans Namuth’s photographs of artists form the 60s, most of which were very familiar but this one stood out.


A photograph I hadn’t seen of Rothko. Here he was looking as melancholic as you’d expect in 1965. 5 years before he committed suicide in 1970.

Looking at the picture I wondered what he was thinking about, what was happening in his life.

What was going on under the surface.

After looking at the frozen moment I realized I was looking at the master of hidden anxieties and monochromatic masks. The man who actually said he wanted people to cry in front of his work reduced his work to a surface and here I was staring at him reduced to another surface in a building full of thousands of paper surfaces.

He removed everything in the world except what was for him a signifier of emotion. Made the world as simple as possible.

Why I started to think is ‘nothing’ so upsetting, why is surface so associated with pain; nihilism, emptyness, space. Rothko was surely trying to counteract this idea, not add to it.

Why if we know or always suspect that fake surfaces must cover up something that can harm us do we continue to worship them?

I hurried home to avoid this thought, any other ideas lost in the hum and flow of a busy L train subway car at 7pm on a Tuesday evening.

Back at home over my Graham Ave Hi-Noodle tofu take out I settled in front of Hulu.

I have a short cut on my browser to the Criterion collection but sometimes it’s just too much effort. Today a documentary would suffice. The first thing to pop up was The Falling Man.


A documentary dedicated to finding out the identity of the falling man in Richard Drews’ iconic photograph, and not really worrying about who it offends along the way.

This is one of those internet moments when you know you just shouldn’t click on it, that the next hour will be swallowed and the experience gained will leave you feeling somehow worse than when you started.

The documentary isn’t particularly insightful but just repeating the image with different stories is so captivating it keeps you watching. It’s difficult not to get affected by the people so I won’t describe the stories but the one thing that struck me is how simple it is.

It eloquently describes hell on the inside of the building and heaven on the outside by contrasting a figure against a surface.

The corporate structure inside and nature and air on the outside. The smoke and fire on the inside and light breeze and sunshine on the outside. And it forces your imagination to do most of the work, not just about the man but about, yourself, politics, humanity and everything in-between.

And the thing that stood between this heaven and hell, the thing that gave birth to such ideas was this thin wall.

That wall is something to think about.

Being a selfish artist I immediately start thinking of Daniel Burren’s formal interventions. Here is his 1986 ‘controversial’ work Les Deux Plateaux installed in The Palais Royal.


The formal similarities are obvious and the subject matter the opposite, one interventionalist formalism the other an image that seems to describe our deepest thoughts about the human condition. What, I think is behind Buren’s work, is it really as superficial as it seems?

I retired to bed. I like to search obscure radio stations on my tunin app, the further away the better. Some aural astral projection before sleep is always healthy.

Unfortunately there is only one station in Antactica (ANet radio, very calming).

I found one in the mid west playing MOR rock. Bruce Springsteen came on with I’m on Fire.

I’m fairly new to The Boss. In the UK most people generally think he’s some macho republican but of course he’s the opposite, a hero of the working man.

His songs can come across as total surface, rock and roll, booze, youth and love. But under that is a collage of narrative and metaphor about America, its people and places; Insights into the darker side of Vietnam and dance songs that appear to be about love but end up being about elections.

Lets ignore the obvious crass apocalyptic connections between the falling man, the plane, decaying New York, Rothko’s red surfaces and the title I’m on Fire and listen to the song.

The song is superficially about desire and loss, about a girl a boy so desperately wants to sleep with…. He lies in bed tormented by this desire… but after some research the song of course goes deeper.

In the 80s each time he would play the song he would add or take away parts. Often he would include a whole narrative. Instead of just being about lust he described the track in Rolling Stone magazine as being about the frustrating desire for objects, wealth and careers.

It’s a track about what’s under the surface of the American Dream and how the desire for these objects can ultimately lead to violence. Illustrated in the song as a 6 inch knife.

I think it’s interesting to think of the father in the story not just as a family figure but also as Springsteen suggests, as a symbol of America.

A character that can’t control it’s people, a character that can’t get what it really wants and ultimately encourages it’s children to turn to violence to make up for it’s own misfortunes.

This performance is from Paris in 1985.”