Review – “4 Steps from the Wire” by James Caley

Tom Jenks

“4 Steps from the Wire” by James Caley, pub. Hesterglock Press (2018). []

"Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them."

    Max Ernst

Collage has a long and deep history. Surrealists and Dadaists like Max Ernst, Georges Braque and Kurt Schwitters used it as a way of jumpstarting the unconscious to bypass the strictures of logic. We see it in the art of the middle twentieth century, in Pauline Boty, Peter Blake and Eduardo Paolozzi, and in the contemporaneous literature of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard. It’s a thread we can trace further through the work of Kathy Acker and, with its blend of text and imagery, the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. We might regard collage as a disruptive tactic, a means of questioning and subverting the notion of the stable self, of refusing transparency and easy meaning, a cool calculation, an avantgarde stratagem. The matters of subjectivity and affect, however, although they may be swerved, cannot be wholly dismissed. Although collage, with its emphasis on the manipulation of existing materials, is not ‘expressive’ in the traditional, Romantic conception of the word, it is nonetheless shaped by human decisions. In the acts of selection and juxtaposition the trace of the individual is inescapable, however seemingly austere the end product.

James Caley’s4 Steps from the Wireis anything but austere. Caley revisits and reboots the old school,manual methods that would have been familiar to Ernstet al and combines them with digital tools to create polychromatic multiverses, luminous blizzards of text and image. Caley deploys a range of techniques, from instinctive sweeps of wild colour to redaction and erasure, from scrawls on the rim of meaning to gnomic shards of text.4 Steps from the Wire is not so much a book as a portable exhibition.

In the book’s postface, Caley speaks of paranoia, psychosis and a suicide attempt informing the processes that produced 4 Steps from the Wire, a period when he ‘couldn't bring myself to contemplate the art of the sentence’. Whilst we should be wary of hasty hot takes that reductively conflate art and life, it’s easy here to see what Caley means. In his hands, collage is a molten, mutable, tactile medium and 4 Steps from the Wire is as heartfelt as any autobiography. If there is a direction of travel in the book, it is towards density. The colours clot and thicken and the clouds grow darker. Through these canopies, we glimpse elliptical story arcs and oblique optical allusions. In addition to those already noted, an obvious reference point is Tom Phillips' A Humument, where Phillips works with the text of a Victorian novel to create a new work by erasure and occlusion. Caley does not divulge his sources, but they seem to be a blend of found and generated materials which he treats with varying degrees of violence. Some look like newspapers cut up for poison pen letters whilst others collate fragments in analogue word clouds that function as poems. Some pages are completely visual, bright jumbles of line and shape. Others are intricate, elegantly fragile asemic webs. Dotted throughout are fragments of what we assume to be Caley’s own handwriting. In these we discern the buried glimmers of a narrative: ‘tell me have you glimpsed the exit / by which she means to escape’; ‘I’ve never been happy / and there has been / no need / for that’. In his commentary, Caley refers to the character of Penny, which ‘was the name I gave to my main voice of psychosis’ and we can view the book as the annotated visual transcript or score of an elliptical, internal dialogue. Each piece has a title, but these are not presented next to the pieces themselves, rather in a table of contents at the front of the book. Whilst these titles help illuminate some of the pieces (the agitated lines and colours of ‘Caffeine’, for instance, or the murky nocturne that is ‘Give Me My Ego’) the list is almost a poem in its own right, an abstract litany.

Taken together, 4 Steps from the Wireis a very impressive work, a vibrant hybrid of methods and modes, a reinvigoration of collage for modern ends. Whilst the declared subject matter may be dark, the book itself is by no means ‘heavy’. 4 Steps from the Wire is riotous and vivid, a full-on, all-out assault on the senses.

copyright © Tom Jenks, 2019