Multimedia artist Simon Patterson is best known within design circles for his appropriation and transformation of Frank Pick’s 1930s London Underground map into an iconic artwork, The Great Bear (1992). Printed by the renowned cartographer of the original map, Lovell Johns of Oxford, and exact in every detail, but for the seemingly random substitution of station names for a roll-call of legendary celebrities – from footballers and philosophers to actors and media moguls – Patterson’s version married his subversive humour (Mornington Crescent anyone?), a love of information systems – be they transport routes or wiring maps – with a host of personal obsessions, and a burgeoning fascination with the formal languages of design and the mass media.
‘I was looking at the “overlooked”,’ Patterson explains, ‘because, back then, only graphic designers and historians were interested in Frank’s map. It wasn’t considered cool.’ Patterson goes on to recount his battle with ‘Byzantine bureaucracy’ at London Transport. While waiting for permission to use the map, ‘I kept reworking it’, the upshot being what he calls a ‘controlled accident… everyone who looks at it has their own centre or starting point’, just as they would with a real journey. The beauty of The Great Bear is that within Patterson’s new system his personally imposed logic still allows individual readings and infinite juxtapositions.
Patterson’s appropriation of design as a visual language began early. While still at Goldsmiths College he exhibited in Damien Hirst’s epoch-making show, Freeze (1988). There he hung two portrait-proportioned white canvases side by side, screen-printed in black ink, with the words ‘Richard Burton’ and ‘Elizabeth Taylor’. Both were realised in American Typewriter – the font associated with script-writing templates. The late Tony Arefin, who art directed the show’s catalogue, became Patterson’s first collector and a collaborator. A ‘co-operative relationship’, hooking up with skilled professionals, ‘because I can’t be an expert on everything’, has become Patterson’s preferred working method, enabling the exploration of a range of media and systems, including typography, book layout, sign writing, film-making and architecture.
For his latest exhibition, opening this week at London’s Haunch of Venison gallery, Patterson continues his exploration of media with two very different projects. Black-List is a series of large-scale (3m by 2m), retina-searing images, with airbrushed acrylic on canvas, mimicking wide-screen, white-out-of-black movie credits, complete with the blurry optical illusion of a fuzzy projector.
At first glance, what could be more banal than monochrome movie credits in search of a film? Look closer, though, and you’ll see that alongside the household names from blockbuster movies – for instance, Martin Scorsese’s mobster classic Goodfellas – appear less familiar individuals, such as the victims of Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts, the black-listed Hollywood 10. That substitution of straight information for poignant content, spiked with some intriguing in-jokes – ‘Florida Bookie Gene Kelly’ – realised with a formidable level of illusionary skill, perfectly demonstrates Patterson’s predilection for mixing a little magic with his systems; it also highlights his fascination with cinema and an ambition to explore that medium further.
The second project is a work in progress, currently realised as a portfolio of prints and a computer-generated visualisation, completed in collaboration with Will McLardy at specialist design consultancy Oaker. Building on his recent large-scale installation work, Patterson has designed an intervention within an abandoned farmhouse outside the French town of Ors. It was in the cellar of this house that war poet Wilfred Owen wrote his last letter home during the dying days of World War I.
Patterson muses on the difficulty of ‘making a work about poetry’. His solution required two contrary treatments of the space. While the cellar itself will be left untouched – a dark, enclosed and brooding place – it will be accessed via a curved, walled slope that gradually transforms into an open-air amphitheatre. Meanwhile, the interior of the house will be completely gutted, with one side of the pitched roof hinged open to become a glass skylight. White-rendered walls act as a three-dimensional projection screen, upon which text will appear, morph and dissolve. Patterson’s aim in showing this long-term project in progress is to raise awareness and funds, through the sale of limited- edition typographic prints featuring the names of various war poets.
Black List runs from 20 January to 24 February, at Haunch of Venison, 6 Haunch of Venison Yard, London W1