There is no doubting the quality of Roger Andersson’s draughtsmanship in his new book Letters from Mayhem : it is confident, beguiling, and occasionally inventive. The book consists of illustrations incorporating each letter of the alphabet within an imaginary landscape of Scandinavian flora, discarded packaging and anonymous ‘youths’ – somewhere between wasteland and wonderland. Their aqueous tone and precision draws on a few precursors, not least Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden who, rather like Andersson, “inserted comments on sex, politics and commerce into illustrations of religious stories and folklore." (press release, Sarah Meltzer Gallery) One might also detect, in the pictorial elaboration of the capital letters, traces of medieval manuscript illumination, although here ‘illumination’ is treated, unsurprisingly, with some irony.

Roger Andersson, Letters From Mayhem, S, 2003, watercolor on paper, 35 x 35 cm; image held here

Drawing upon the minutiae of teenage kicks, heavy metal, fairy tales and cartoons, Andersson’s alphabetic commentary makes nostalgic allusions to the romantic decadence of lost youth and its vague libidinal longings. However, neither precise draughtsmanship nor prestigious reference can save this garden of vices from all too easily becoming walled in by its own platitudes and clichés: a place where hallucination stands for profundity, vapours for spirit, and where poetry, such as Albert Mobilio looks for in his accompanying texts, is mistakenly thought to result from the facile ornamentation of decay.

Roger Andersson, L etters From Mayhem, 2004, Cabinet Books, New York; image held here

Perhaps all this ponderous navel-gazing is employed by Andersson to articulate some sense of adolescent confusion and ruin. Certainly, the drug culture which develops from this confusion is sometimes blind to its situation, constructing an elaborate metaphysics of irresponsibility and conspiracy in order to prolong the bad faith of infantile freedoms. But from time to time this potentially ruinous situation has also carried the political weight of counter-culture. As Walter Benjamin noted long ago, “the true foundation of impertinence is the childÕs displeasure that it cannot conjure"; that is to say, the frustration that the child experiences when the full potential of ‘conjure’ – to plot, swear together, play tricks, and most importantly, the capacity to evoke or imagine how life might otherwise be lived – is diminished by the schedules and structures of adulthood. If this bond between impertinence and the desire to conjure is broken, the former also diminishes in meaning and potential, thus consigning to irrelevance the insolent rebellion of those who do not belong.

Perhaps this shift from rebellion to irrelevance is as simple as the displacement of a letter: here, letters do not form mayhem but come from it – and thus mayhem makes its exit.

Roger Andersson: Letters from Mayhem, D, 2003, watercolor on paper, 35 x 35 cm; image held here

Even if it is now the case that the subversive content of recreational drug-use has been, by and large, commercially recuperated by a cynical market eager to promote the spectacle of consumer hedonism, Andersson cannot articulate the complexities that have led to this situation because of the uniform and often trite manner by which he approaches his subject. Where Andersson might well have put his talents at the service of remembering this past content, instead his repeated format fragments the act of remembrance, seals its remnants within a hermetic environment, washes them over with nostalgia, and so reduces them to the same weightless irrelevance throughout. In doing so, he makes a gimmick of the ‘great squandering of oneÕs own existence’ that is teenage delinquency, even when he attempts to present it as a Lord of the Flies -like return to superstition, brutality and ignorance. No doubt the latter is sometimes the case, but had Andersson been more attentive to his subject, he might have noticed that this ‘great squandering’ is also akin to the experience of being in love, and more importantly for us here, that of poetic imagination.

Tim Stott is a critic living in Dublin.