The Ape of Intimation:
Finding a Fay Wray for every King Kong
(after Jason Shulman)†

Naturally, we want to have a practical relationship with the things that fascinate us, […] because a theoretical relationship isn’t enough.
—Thomas Bernhard, The Loser [1970]

Woman walks into a bar and asks for a double entendre,
so, the barman gives her one.
—A joke my brother told me, circa 2008


The tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. […]Think of the Rorschach inkblot test.

Commissioned by Jason Shulman on behalf of Cob Gallery, London, on the occassion of the exhibition ‘Some Work’ [29.09.17—21.10.17]; a retrospective of Shulman’s sculpture and works on paper; this essay was printed as a calligramme, in the shape of a Martini glass (typeset by Shulman), and given away over drinks during the exhibition’s opening as an A2 print verso to Shulman’s ‘Ann Darrow II.’  

I’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth. We’re sitting in the warm light of his studio, talking quickly, and Jason Shulman tells me that we all naturally gravitate towards a kind of “pareidolia.” That it’s a condition not only of the artist, but also any member of an audience exposed to any given cultural object of fascination. I look at my drink, nod, and tend to agree. We’ve been talking for a time now, and I realize that all my talk has been a little tendentious as we move between bottles. I’m trying to lead him one way, he’ll try to lead me another. It’s not a debate but more like a dance as we make big generalizations over drinks. Both separately and together, we try and find exactly what it was we were looking for in the first place, look for something like an echo, knowing that that particular brand of interpretation—that ape of intimation—is in itself a form of work, hard work, work that resists the simple allure of mercantile ambition as thinking swings around a gallery, around the studio.
        I met Jason to conduct an interview in the late spring, and these were our subjects to some degree. A little on meaning-making, on appraisal, and on expressive plasticity. But if this is a nexus point for a broader discussion of Shulman’s work, in certain aspect and under certain light, we could say that Shulman’s Some Work is a show about showmanship itself in such a sense. The showmanship of colloquy, of conversation. I see his work as work about talk, about a hunt for emphasis, and about the use and abuse of interpretation. About the lossless illumination that rolls on when that talk keeps turning. His is a conversation about the ways in which we take a stage, take a seat, take a role, get to work. We’ve all got our own cache of objects of attention, our own kinetic tics, our own translation of “work.” In here, we look at what Shulman turns that work into.
      But we’re at work on a different kind of work here; at work on the fine-art of post-justification, looking to privatize meaning around the private gallery, looking to make light of things. We see animals in cloud formations; we see faces in the surfaces of long-exposure photographs; light refracts and it iterates the details of a private memory. A painting becomes a small picture of personal fetish, retrospection, desire in both a minor and major key. A sculpture, a little totem to pattern recognition. We want a little ownership of our reading; to ape an idea, to walk away with our own rendition. In such a context, our looking is a kind of distorting impulse. It’s with that in mind that Some Work itinerantly aggregates itself as a little love letter to the creative impulses iterated in this strange act of looking and expressing that look in words. This strange act of disassociation. This act of forging new associations in a polite maiming of meaning that’s given platform in here as we respond to the elevated object sat on its plinth, address the image flanked by its white walls, aim to fill the blank spaces between works with a little noise. As tradition has it, this is serious work; here, it’s just another evening, an untamed train of conceptual rhymes, and it’s there, perhaps, that Jason seats his trick. Key to his practice is that this isn’t some opportunity to engage some ironic Catherine wheel of critical discourse. This is all the preface to a joke—we’re both laughing—and that’s our contract for the evening; we both keep talking. We’re here to hear out Jason’s means of speech, to watch it made manifest as “work.” Here movement isn’t historical, but it leads in to the magnification of a minor detail. Every piece, a kinetic performance…. A firework of its own accord.
        It may sound a little like I’m stretching his meaning here, or putting words in his mouth, but if we engage the circuitry of such an idea in talking about “showmanship” in the abstract we’re talking about our need for a little justification here and there. About the ways we reflect both publically and privately. About our want to rationalize our various faculties of interpretation, our look to evidence ideas, our want to own our experiences of cultural interaction. 

   Ann Darrow II,’ Jason Shulman

Our capacity to perform the role of the viewer, reader, audience member and artist somewhat interchangeably is funnier than it is sentimental as we look at Shulman’s science and the interactivity of his work, but there is a mutual accord around creativity that arises around his output. His sculptures demand a degree of complicity, of implication. To my mind, that’s what sits at the heart of his themes; at the gut of his sense of humor. We need circumnavigate these objects, be a little transient with them, walk around them for them to do theirwork. The artist and the audience—we both have jobs to do—but it is how each of those roles makes manifest a little entrapment that proves the butt of the joke in here. We’re all lighting out to construct a little meaning, to incriminate ourselves in one way or another, to exact our place in the process. That is, perhaps, where my mind goes when it wanders through the space, when we come to talk about a “show” in the abstract, about this show in particular, and about the performativity of Jason’s work, about Some Work, his circus…. About the aping of intimation.
        His themes swing around the parlance of this kind of humor. We have tricks of the light, abused lenticular icons, psychosexual manifestations that’ll glow in the dark and move around on flat surfaces. The show, to borrow another of Jason’s terms from that first evening, is both “prepossessing” and about “prepossession” itself. About the tangible need to estrange ourselves from quotidian things as a quiet and yet defiant act of place. We look to Shulman’s Martini. It is his drink, sure, but as soon as that claim is asserted the ownership is up for dispute again; the martini disappears into a hand, into air, emerges out of the limb or the face of an old starlet. We’ve a play on semiotics in reverse; Shulman does not seem to be pointing at the ways in which brands, objects and ideas scream out of us but rather how they feed into us, cluster a little, and become something alien again, again and again. That’s the performance here, and the amusement triggered by his regular play with iconography; why canonize Coca-Cola when it’s easier to just consume it? Is that not lyrical enough? An image of a Mary or a Monroe is there to be exploited as we grow a little tired of these tired faces? To talk performance, in such a sense, is to talk about the myriad ways in which we incarnate things. There’s no anxiety of influence, only its inflection; its constantly renewed iteration…. To ape, intimate, and alter.
        But if we’re going to talk about performance we need let the conversation leak a little. To talk about performance, we need talk about the distance between the performer and their audience; talk around (or in-between) these two differing iterations of the very idea of a show: the show as work and the show as spectacle. We need talk about the disappearance of the artist into object and the emergence of a different kind of control as a given object engages the private life and eye of a viewer. Talk about the sculpture’s strange status as a “thing;” as a bridge capable of connecting alien parties in some kind of wordless conference and as exacting itself as a tool for exaggerating our detachment, our remoteness; for articulating the overwhelming difficulty of articulacy itself. To talk about showmanship is, perhaps, to slowly but surely stop talking about the show and allow our talk to drift on to other things. This all sounds too heavy, but maybe it’s in here—in this room—that these ideas begin to coalesce in and around the arrangement of Jason’s work. Perhaps it’s in the distortion involved in the performative character of the audience rather than in the artist’s capacity for trickery that Shulman’s work really begins to shine. I’m losing you? We should begin with a series of reference points, with a disappearing trick; with Jason’s evaporation. It’s in Jason’s disappearance that the work begins to do its work. That all begins when we walk in the room. Maybe, in talking about disappearance, it’s here that we can start seeing a pattern in Shulman’s various prepossessions, in the prepossessing character of his work, in the processes of repossession concomitant in his particular brand of showmanship. Shulman wants us to take control of the stage, but know that control is only ever partial. To tell jokes about the exchange of power congruent as we unpick the seams that hold the idea of a “show” together…. We need buy the work, enjoy its purchase, and hang it in a place of our choosing.
        It was Etienne Bonnet de Condillac—writing on the Origin of Human Understanding back in the eighteenth century—who suggested that the act of writing constituted some insoluble connect between a text and its author. This association would be fleeting though; it would evaporate entirely once the act of reading commences. In many respects, this is an old idea; a tired and academic number. However, it’s perhaps this conception of disappearance engaged through an exchange of power between artist and audience that provides the scaffold for the sense of humor innate to a great deal of Shulman’s practice and instinct for scientific chicanery. The arrangement of these works together maintain something of an authorial wit. It is as though—with each piece—we’re given the notes to a good joke, a joke well told, a joke that knows it’s going to be picked up and told in other rooms. Perhaps, in that sense, the idea of the joke is a better place to begin? Maybe we should forget the show and settle with the machinations of a laugh. The emphasis on double entendre, on the overall importance of looking at a thing twice; the various stresses on disassociation delivered through wordplay, the overarching authority of context as a joke drifts from speaker to speaker, between parties, spreading through different rooms. Perhaps it’s the shift in ownership, in authority, that stakes out a better chair when we’re trying to home in on the heart of the objects collected here under the banner of Shulman’s project. His “some.” But there is a problem at the core of my thinking here. A problem that Shulman himself would express and reproach in conversation as we would sit together in his studio. The problem with such a position as I’m crawling through here—as I engage, to some degree, the rigors of this fine-art of post-justification, as I take my wits for a walk through this work—is, in short, that I’m exploiting an activity that Shulman himself would articulate unequivocally as a trap. I’m a bad scientist essaying a little bad science. I best explain myself further; articulate my guilt. You’ll see what I mean. Here’s an anecdote as a point of entry….
        Consider the case of Pei-Shen Qian. During the Cultural Revolution, with all the arts under sanctioned state control, Qian painted portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong for schoolhouses and factories; he kept the leftover paint, a scarce commodity, as reward for his efforts and worked fastidiously at the development of his own practice in his off-hours. Self-acknowledging as an artist, Qian arrived in the US on a student visa in 1981 and, based in New York, set up at his easel on a Manhattan street corner—West 4th Street—painting a passerby or a pedestrian at a starting rate of $15 a piece. There, he was discovered by two brothers and they entered into an arrangement. The brothers asked him for an imitation at $200 and, picturing their request, mimicking someone else’s work, Qian began life as a copyist. He painted pictures by figures as diverse as Motherwell, Newman, Francis and Kline—painters he respected and admired—and settled into a quiet professionalism, reworking other people’s expressions as a local economy of mid-century paradigms. Throughout the 1990s, he was often paid several hundred dollars for any given totem of the twentieth century; by the time the market crashed in 2008, he had honed his craft and, working out of a small studio in Queens, began making real money.
        Qian would intimate the history of his paintings. He used old paint. He aged his canvases. He learned to write other people’s names with all the fidelity called for by a painter’s signature. The brothers were paying him up to $7,000 per painting, and more money traded hands as the work began to circulate. Knoedler & Co., a gallery referred to only as ‘Gallery #1’ in the indictment papers, is alleged to have invested $20,700,000 in Qian’s forgeries that would then later fetch up to twice that in profit on sale. Knoedler closed its doors in 2011, with lawsuits ushered in from dissatisfied buyers at every angle, whilst the executive front of the gallery insists that they made every effort to authenticate each iota of Qian’s work. Regarded as one of the most far reaching cases of creative fraud in recent American history, Qian can’t portray the scandal as anything other than “a very big misunderstanding.” Unconvinced that anyone would have considered his imitations to be genuine work, Qian espouses a view of all his errors as informing an originality: “It’s impossible to imitate them – from the papers to the paints to the composition. It’s impossible to do it exactly.” Qian would simply comment that “he made a knife for cutting fruit”—his own purposes were equivocal—he couldn’t speak for anybody else—he could barely speak for himself. But the work, in spite of its long legalistic hangover, gave him a tool with which to self-identify. Living in Shanghai, and unable to return to America, he still considers himself “an American painter.” Qian’s manipulation by—and, perhaps accidentally, of—the marketplace is something that doesn’t manage to entirely obfuscate the nature of his practice. As a painter, his recourse was to locate a certain form of expression through the imperfect silhouette of the works of others. His work was an act of displacement rather than a more simplistic, cynical mimicry. It’s another kind of “make-it-new” to bounce off of the tailgate of the Twentieth Century. That he would defame his critics and, instead, argue his work as an organic activity submissive to the pressures of canon is an anxiety that aggregates something of his symbolic reach. Rather than an artist contributing impressions of his own imperfect definitions of any subjectivism, he technologizes his points of distractions; he paints pictures of his points of stimulus; he perfects an iteration of the bad science of post-justification.
        Acknowledging the weight of influence, and the anxiety involved in reproduction, he comes around to rehearse and redress the expressions of others to subtly dispute the ownership of each work. But it’s not just what’s said that Qian borrows, but in turn a way of speaking. His pictures are other people’s pictures. The view shifts between his own private perspective and a historic record of human expression in plastic form. That the latter comes at a price loftier than his hand could carry, however, allows that the deep pockets of the market drag him in and reconfigure his considered expression as a complex of criminal actions. His was a practical relation to his form rather than a theoretical expression, but the important jump-off is that, through these various acts of unoriginality, Qian co-opted his verbal actions and turned them into a noun— “An American painter;” Shulman, on the other hand, is more interested in the ways in which we deal with ubiquitous things. How we engage their unique oddity, their opacity, and can make little sense of them without a little joke about personal association which will, in turn, only serve so as to make these objects scarce and oblique again. Qian’s story is a funny one, in part, as his is a little playful response to the idea of a public domain and the idea of signatory. Maybe Qian is more useful than Condillac when we’re pacing the gallery here? It’s hard to say, perhaps; hard to know. But to my mind, it’s a sense of humor innate to the availability Jason’s symbols and ciphers that enhances the work in its arrangement as a “Some” of objects.Shulman wants to play with the connections we bring to bear on given things; he wants us to take a little responsibility, to provoke a little iconoclasm. To not overthink our answers to difficult questions. To evade bad science.
        I first spoke with Jason in the spring. Over several drinks we sat at his desk with our intentions on an interview rather than an interrogation. Our discussion, in end, was more far reaching than a stroll through the details of the work at hand. Sitting, smoking and talking, we were working through representative responses to cinema as accommodated in his ‘Photographs on Films’ series and our attentions were turning towards the ways in which we read these representations of popular film themselves as images of interpretation. I should foreground some dialogue.
        ‘As a series,’ I ask, ‘the images almost paint a picture of movie-going as an escapist activity that is, perhaps, ultimately disposable?’ The images represent the entirety of a film compressed into a single image—with a little encompassing light, a long exposure—each film is obscured to a somewhat painterly effect. We’ve iterations of Deep Throat, of Dumbo, of Wild Strawberriesto name but a few; these films result in these expressionist spreads of color that, to some degree, mock the idea of an effort to isolate a singularmoment of importance in a film, a single scene, actor, or impression. To home in on a single detail is to do so at the expense of rest of the film, here only a blur of light, a pool of color. Here each scene, each piece of dialogue, each character, bleeds in to one single look. The work is funny, to me, but ‘feels cynical,’ I insinuate. In this context, it feels like we’re reading the films to seek out a little joke about memorial, about cultural memory; we hang on to an individual detail as that's all there will be thereafter when the credits roll. We decide whether we take our corner, or sit with popular consensus. There's something so curious in flattening out of the films in this way; almost a prefiguring of a sense of forgetfulnessthat is as strangely beautiful a display of our limitations as readers as it is a jab at critical intervention as an institution. But it’s here, in the terms of that forgetfulness, that we’re talking about the kind of disappearance prefigured by Condillac; about the reallocation of ownership innate to Qian’s work. We’re talking about the personal biases involved in post-justification. We talk back and forth about the ideas that surface out of such a swamp of associations.
        ‘We're talking about bad science now,’ Shulman suggests. 
     ‘Yes. Bad science. A self-supporting post-justification. You know what I mean? What I mean is that most artists behave like bad scientists. There’s a nervous tendency to reappraise and find or forge “evidence” or “meaning” after the fact. I’m trying my best not to do that....’
        I reflect, we laugh a little, but I’m acutely aware that I’m a guilty party in the room; I confess that ‘I spend all my time as a bad scientist,’ that ‘I’m always thinking about the art of post-justification…;’ that an obsession with context overarches pictorial representation. Shulman nods and turns his attention to the images, gestures towards them. ‘I never can be sure about the fixed meaning of these things. We’re all so prone to a change of heart. To the charm of forgetfulness.’
        “The charm of forgetfulness,” he calls it; a beautiful phrase, for sure. ‘We're invited to forget the source material, and then to reapply it in terms of our own intentions….’ It’s a simple statement of subjectivity, but the complexity occurs in the transformative moment of performance, our performative renderings and rehanging of these motion pictures.
        But walking from those pieces to these collated works, something else happens when they are exhibited. Suddenly it’s about what should hang next to what. About a dispute of control between the images themselves under the moniker of the show, the space…. We’re sat in and amidst a crisis of arranged meanings, looking to draw correlation, to identify an arc of meaning. It is at this point, Shulman suggests, that the selection and order becomes a kind of showmanship and, in short, where some fun can be had. It’s up to us to forge connections, however fraudulent they may be. Addressing the work, I'm suddenly thinking about my own relationship with form rather than the artist’s relationship with technology, with their medium. Or, conversely, I’m simply lost to the firework. That we exercise a strange kind of critical austerity, a calling out for the private ownership of a reading, seems to be a keen and chiding remark throughout Jason’s arc. We stroll through the public domain, looking to privatize our perspective, and work out how best to slug it back to the world. We think on how best we can incorporate like a little institution and elect our representative colors, stripes and things. To my mind, these selected works are dedicated entirely to a scrutiny of that. To a scrutiny of that, and a need to find a work-around for all this bad science. To evade the predominance of bad science. Its ubiquity. To know, in end, the difference between feeling a thing, knowing a thing, and simply holding up a thing against the world….
        From here, Shulman points to another piece of work. On the page, Fay Wray is playing Ann Darrow; here, Darrow has her hands in the air—over her head in an ecstatic stretch. Set against a dark backdrop, Wray appears to glow as shards of light are scratched off around her body. King Kong is dissimulated, somewhere in the background; she, on the other hand, she looks like an illuminated saint; a little-Blakean-knock-off; a little icon for a prayer card. ‘These pictures are a part of a long study that I’ve made of the Martini glass,’ Shulman explains:

I used to drink a lot of Martinis. And I wondered if there was any personal or somehow insightful work that could be gleaned from this least-prepossessing of objects with which I’ve spent so much time. At some point, I started thinking about the 1933 version of King Kong, an old favourite of mine, and the relationship between the big monkey and Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray. I realized that I could view Kong as a potential alcoholic. Why potential? Because he doesn’t become an alcoholic until he is beguiled by this modern lemon-haired, silver-dressed beauty who rocks up one day on Skull Island. The moment he sets eyes on her, that’s it. He’s addicted. Wray is the long drink he’s been waiting for. For much of the film, the first half at least, she's strung up—her arms in a "V" over her head—she’s literally pulling the shape of a Martini glass. In the second half, she's in his hand. Pondered and pawed like a delicious drink awaiting consumption. So, now I could connect these two themes. My goofy glass and an interpretation of the film. So, the way I addressed this combination was by scraping and scarifying the prints that I’d made—dark prints—so that scratching away at the paper made Fay become a blinding yet seductive ray—or rather Wray—of light.

Here, we’ve the image of interpretation. Wray’s illumination, forced as it may be as Shulman scratches into the surface of the paper, is set up so as to put us in the gorilla’s seat somewhere behind her light.
        Now we’re not Condillac looking to disappear, nor Qian playing with an echo. We’re King Kong. Kong, looking to be beguiled; we’re Kong, looking to fall in love with a given thing, let the thing become a habit, let the thing overtake us. Overcome us. That level of intoxication—the strange kind of love, fascination and physicality that the gorilla canters around with—serves as a pleasant analogue for the ways in which we can enter this room. Look at the work, you see what I mean. We’re all like various translations of Kong in here, all like a Kong dragging ourselves around all over town; Kong, lost to the new mystique that is clouding familiar things. We’re like various versions of Kong, looking for our Fay, looking for our little “wray” of light, our little inspiration; looking to find an idea, ape an idea, intimate it, and to alter it irrevocably. To pick it up and set it down as Some Work….