Gary Coyle, The Wild Wild Wood, Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin, 30 September to 29 October 2004

The wild wild wood is dark, even in daytime: sparse, orderly interiors are obscured by shadows; foliage crawls, à la Max Ernst, with suggestions of contorted figures, overrunning a modern bureaucratic facade; or a plague of pigeons erupts from a tumultuous shag-pile carpet. mocking an empty bird cage in the corner. All this suggests the disavowed underbelly of dark desires, marginal but always present transgressions and brutalities. These scenes are those of porn sets, of unspecified crimes, or of equally ‘criminal’ lifestyle propaganda, and upon finding that the original protagonists have been erased, one is already implicated in their place: the night of desire looks back at the one who looks into it, and its gaze cannot be avoided – in this case, it incriminates.

One is reminded of W C Field’s aphorism “one can only deceive a crook": just as the scene of the crime is of most interest to the potential criminal, so the porn scene is most seductive to the budding pornographer … what role the artist here? And, more broadly, to what extent does art prostitute itself to the desires of its audience? However, when the scene is devoid of protagonists, any voyeuristic gratification is deferred and distracted by formerly peripheral elements; plush furnishings, palms and ivy, or ominous park walkways substitute the acts that took place in them, pointing to the arificial but ordinary nature of the settings in which fantastic pleasures are pursued. Coyle’s primary, but rather unoriginal, insight seems to be that viewing art is tantamount to the pursuit of more ‘base’ pleasures; that, as beholders, we too have certain desires that demand satisifaction, we too seek to play out our hidden fantasies in the aesthetic experience.

It also seems rather ingenuous to consider these fantasies as aberrant or transgressive, i.e as something towards which we fall: in developing as conscious subjects, we must pass through ‘madness’ – a traumatic, primal ‘night’ of dismembered and disconnected spectral objects – towards fantasies consisting of ‘false’ appearances that make the ‘night’ cohere, and which screen for us a reality that is truly monstrous. Coyle cannot approach this ‘night’ with the artistic means at his disposal, whatever the distressed appearance of his drawings and their allegedly transgressive content. Hence, these drawings are more likely to be a simple refinement of base titillations.

If Coyle’s work is an exploration of limits, these limits are primarily those of symbolic representation, which, by propagating fantasies, always makes the night of the world palatable for its audience. But Coyle draws back from these limits when he conflates the real and the symbolic in some hyperreality. In this light, we might consider the deceptive resemblance of Coyle’s settings to the films of David Lynch: the greatness of Lynch’s films is that there is always asymmetry between the play of meaningful appearances and the background ‘murmur of the real’, whereas the uniformity of Coyle’s medium closes this gap.

On another level, Coyle’s drawings present us with certain platitudes. Presenting crime and pornography as prime exemplars of transgression and violence is to parade the usual suspects, and their reproduction here seems rather conventional. Likewise, the notions that ‘wildness’ is barely contained by the processes of civilisation, art being prominent among them, and that the gaze of the world threatens us are fairly common themes of Western art of the past fifty years or so. Such uncomplicated reproduction of theoretical commonplaces means that Coyle’s work cannot do justice to the complex issues that it engages with. What is perceived as threatening, criminal or pornographic is crossed by social and political stratifications, and these notions alter position according to who is using them: they are not so black and white (though mostly black) as Coyle suggests. The extent to which such simplification is a consequence of a limited medium is an open question.

Tim Stott is a writer.