John McHale

Telemath VI


Not on display

John McHale 1922–1978
Oil paint and printed paper on hardboard
Support: 917 × 1221 mm
frame: 934 × 1242 × 48 mm
Purchased 1996


John McHale was a leading member of the Independent Group, a loose confederation of artists that emerged from the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, around 1952. Like many of its members, he was opposed to a hierarchical stratification of culture and was absorbed by modernity, in particular the mass media and technology. As the world's most technologically advanced nation and the home of an extremely sophisticated and innovative mass media, the United States was of special interest to McHale. However, like most artists of his generation, his knowledge of it was based entirely on second-hand experience until he spent a year between 1955 and 1956 at Yale University studying colour theory and industrial design under the artist Josef Albers (1888-1976). This direct encounter with the United States, particularly its popular culture, was a seminal moment in his development as an artist. Thereafter his collages, which previously had focussed on the manner of communication in the modern age, presented personages actually constructed from mass media cuttings. The critic Robert Freedman referred to these figures as 'the media-fed man' (quoted in Robbins, p.87).

When McHale returned to England in the summer of 1956 he brought with him a trunk full of American magazines and other ephemera, which were to provide much of the raw material for his collages over the next two years, including Telemath VI. The ground of this collage is made from newsprint cuttings taken from English language publications. Onto this pieces of coloured paper and images from various mass media publications have been applied to create two notional figures. Red paint has then been applied in a vigorous style to the area surrounding the figures. In some instances there is a direct correspondence between the objects and their function in the collage; for example, in the left-hand figure camera lenses serve as eyes, but in general the objects' primary function within the collage is formal.

Although the cuttings are all taken from popular modern publications, the images themselves are of objects ranging from antique carvings to meatballs. The implied equivalence of such things reflects McHale's non-hierarchical approach to culture, as well as his interest in the 'palimpcestuous layering of signs' (The Expendable Icon, p.32) that he felt characterised the new technological age.

Telemath VI is one of at least eight 'telemath' collages. In each there are two central forms made from mass media images of various objects. The meaning of the title is not clear, but it may refer to some sort of future learning or knowledge. Jacquelynn Baas has suggested that these images are futuristic representations of mankind as half mechanical, half organic. It is not known where the collage was made.

Further reading:
Jacquelynn Baas, 'John McHale', in David Robbins (ed.), The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1990, pp.87-93, reproduced p.93,
The Expendable Ikon: Works by John McHale, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo 1984

Toby Treves
June 2001

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