Steven Claydon

Joanna (An Unsubstantial Fraction) (Of Substance Without Action)


Not on display

Steven Claydon born 1969
Lacquered wood, portable keyboard keys, buckram, powder coated steel, cement, peacock feathers, wood, brass, leather, polyester resin and other materials
Overall display dimensions variable
Purchased 2013


Joanna (An Unsubstantial Fraction) (Of Substance Without Action) 2010 is a sculpture by British artist Steven Claydon. It brings together a selection of different objects, displayed on two purpose-made powder-coated steel rectangular structures suggestive of a grand piano and music stool. The composition includes some found objects and some that have been specially fabricated by the artist. They include two portable keyboards, a cast mask – based on an image appropriated from the Yahoo email inbox logo – a small hat or coat stand, an Italian 1950s army dress helmet, a cast aluminium wine glass, bottle and selection of bricks, two buckram covered boxes, a lacquered yellow box, a small bell and a wooden block with peacock feathers and brass bolts. The work was included in British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet, which toured to a number of venues in the United Kingdom between 2010 and 2011.

The artist has described the work in the following way:

The title in part refers to a piano (Joanna in rhyming slang) and explores the collision between utility and metaphor in the artefact. For instance a Steinway in a museum, unplayable but a cultural heirloom. The notion of a cultural metaphor or emblem can extend to many things or concretions of things. I have embedded reference to Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ cartoon strip. The helmet is Snoopy on his hut transfiguring it from kennel to aeroplane. The geometric crests with brass eyes are Woodstock and the whole array refers perhaps to Pig-Pen’s cloud of dirt and flies, the satellite issues orbiting a subject consigned to an object … All of the references are in some way autobiographical in that they are drawn from things I have experienced professionally or in passing throughout my life. Music, cartoons, museums … drinking.
(Email correspondence with Tate curator Clarrie Wallis, May 2012.)

The piano, an instrument associated with a plethora of different types of music, from high cultural classical to the free rhythms of jazz and the local idiosyncrasies of folk, provides a motif for Claydon’s gathering together of diverse cultural forms. In Joanna (An Unsubstantial Fraction) (Of Substance Without Action) the sleek brushed steel, smooth helmet and mid-century design of the objects contrast with the artist’s ‘embedded references’ to cartoon characters Snoopy and Woodstock. The work is a combination of elements from high and low culture – here brought together without hierarchy. The artist acknowledges that this might be comparable to the messy surroundings of Pig-Pen, but it also registers the effect these juxtapositions can have on transforming the meanings and associations of the objects, just as Snoopy imagines his kennel as an aeroplane. In this way Claydon’s complex sculptural compositions interrogate the different ways in which we engage with the world and how different meanings and outlooks are the product of the multilayered networks and relationships between things.

Claydon is interested in material culture, a phrase used by anthropologists and archaeologists to describe the physical products – from traditional craft skills to modern electronic equipment – of society. The term suggests that culture is itself something intangible, but which can take material form. Similarly, Claydon sees objects as being ‘culpable’, in the sense that they reveal something about our way of life. He is particularly interested in the passage of materials from base matter to artefacts with cultural resonance. His sculptures investigate the value of objects and what they reveal about society at large, also exploring the language of museum presentation, with particular reference to the nature of display of previously utilitarian, everyday objects as cultural heirlooms. As such works like Joanna (An Unsubstantial Fraction) (Of Substance Without Action) also addresses the museum’s role in collecting, classifying and displaying objects and the way in which such arrangements reinforce the systems and methodologies that have been devised to classify and interpret them and so bring a sort of order to the world. (‘Martin Clark in Conversation with Steven Claydon’, in firstsite 2012, p.96).

Claydon’s work spans sculpture, print, painting, film and performance and adopts a variety of forms, fusing old and new, raw and man-made. He brings together diverse elements in such a way that each part appears to be of equal weight and importance. This lack of distinction or hierarchy is a key aspect of his approach. For example, portrait busts, pots and vessels are shown alongside cultural ephemera and geological samples, which mix different cultures and periods of time. Through these combinations, the artist creates new, hybrid objects, which explore ideas around physical and cultural transformation and offer a poetic and open-ended approach to interpretation. In this way Claydon deliberately resists the reading of history as a necessary linear progression. This lack of historical categorisation suggests a subversion of standard museological practice, where viewers are free to create their own associations and to trace different histories across time, not necessarily in a linear direction.

Further reading
Steven Claydon: The Ancient Set, exhibition catalogue, International Project Space, Birmingham 2008.
Steven Claydon: Culpable Earth, exhibition catalogue, firstsite, Colchester 2012.

Clarrie Wallis
May 2012

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