A girl tugs at her ear, a man yells out “sounds like,” the girl points to the man and nods yes. Then she points to her head, tugs at her ponytail. “Hair!” Someone shouts, and again she nods in confirmation. “Sounds like hair!” And the game begins. Charades, as a plural, is a type of word guessing game in which one person acts out a word or phrase while other players guess what it is. The idea being to rely on physical rather than verbal language to convey meaning. Charades (the game) was invented by a teacher of the mute in order to allow his pupils to express themselves freely. Charade in its singular form is defined as a 'word represented in riddling verse or by picture, tableau, or dramatic action.'
Since 1998 Clemens Stecher has worked on an elaborate series of drawings in ink, watercolor and acrylic titled Charade I, II, III, IV. Charade I and Charade II probe current events, extricating iconic images from the news. Stretching over nearly a ten-year period these first two segments of Charade deal directly with the image as visual riddle or clue.
Only a handful of images from Charade I include words. One of these drawings (black and white, like all work from part I) is comprised of text across the top of the page “...I'm lea-ving On a Jet Plane” it says, and below is a crumpled up ball of paper. The song Leaving on a Jet Plane was most famously recorded by the American folk-pop group Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969 and rocketed to Number 1 in the charts that year. That tumultuous year both culturally and politically ironically summed up in the feel good lyrics and melody of Jet Plane serves Charade I as a sort of political-pop indicator. A shrewd banner of intent tying together many disparate images—from a fallen figure face down on the floor, to a finger being amputated by a steak knife in front of a cloudy sky—that comprise this first Charade. The innocuous balled-up paper may contain a story, image or clue ripped from the daily news but it also held an earlier form. One can imagine the plane it once was, the ballad of '69 and the images we are bombarded with constantly humbled into a paper wreck.
The Charade is Up
The world's first newspaper was published in 1605 from Strasburg and titled the mouthful of a moniker: Relation aller Furnemmen und Gedenckwurdigen Historien (Collection of All Distinguished and Commemorable News). It was born from the idea of having international correspondents located in various cities submit stories to a central publication that would collate and present the pertinent global goings on. At the time subscribers paid a steep price for such a service, but with the popularity of the printing press and access to the original paper others were soon copying the Strasburg model.
Today, of course, newspapers struggle to maintain hard copy readership but the dissemination of global news happens constantly and instantaneously via the Internet, and it is from all these sources that Stecher culls his inspiration and images.
The Collection of All Distinguished and Commemorable News, like all purveyors of the newsworthy, was about selections as to what the viewer or reader needs to know. For Stecher, faced with the limitless access to images and news the work is about these selections, this artist as editor. When everything seems to be caught on camera, whether by design or accident, where does one begin to trim the excess? The criteria that Stecher imparts may be idiosyncratic but come out of some general cultural consensus regarding the longevity of the news image. This is most evident in Charade II, where the images look familiar even when altered and out of context. We know these characters, these events, these would have to be familiar images even for someone who does not follow the news closely; these are the inescapable images.
There were 8 years of George W. Bush's presidency in which to amass pictures of the world leader. Stecher offers several selections of Bush in Charade II (2000–2006), a
altogether more graphic and cartoon series which is also in
color produced in colour,. In one, Bush is seen leaning haughtily over a speaker's podium, microphone jutting upwards and a beneficent halo glowing around his head. Stecher is having fun in Charade II by using the resolutely un-funny material of global conflict, war and violence, and tweaking these images. Provoking through the selection process and written sound bytes what we should recall from this time and how it could be remembered.
altogether more graphic and cartoon series which is also in
Charade II was originally published in Tonto Comics, and very much embodies the storyboard feel more than the previous and what will be future Charades. There is more text, more direct appropriation of images, and it is the most overtly political of the four series. By including text/dialogue Charade II is the least Charades-like as first defined, and instead refers to a third definition out of Miriam Webster “an empty or deceptive act or pretense.” In other words, the Charade is up.
Blake vs. Pettibon
Dueling was an essential aspect of political, public and personal lives for centuries from medieval justice to 20th century sparring, which has embedded itself into our 21st century imaginations. Because of the nature of the way Stecher organized the work (flipping from black and white to color, for example, with each series) into the Charade series dueling seems an apt comparison and a metaphorical and stylistic duel begins to emerge while considering the drawings of Stecher in their entirety. A whirling dervish of heads chasing tails, a media, image and iconographic swirl that could be embodied in a duel between Blake vs. Pettibon. The mystic English poet (our scattered Romantic hero) versus the cult figure artist who emerged out of the late 1970s and early 80s graphic punk scene (our streetwise philosopher underdog) and the winner is... well, there would be no winner per se. More of an honour driven tussle, both shooting into the air and realizing that each contained aspects of the other. Pettibon considers the work of William Blake an influence in his work but one can also argue that influence is significant in terms of the level of opposition it presents. And in Stecher's work these ideas would translate most strongly in Charade III and Charade IV, though throughout these drawings there is a quality of wrestling not only with what image but also the how of the image lending validity and a sense of contemporaneity to the work.
Charade III is less consciously political and more mystically poignant, less familiarly illustrative but more violent. Again Charade III is black and white, and rather than using the ink to describe pictures as in previous Charades Stecher introduces the medium itself as descriptive. All of this is embodied in several drawings containing black holes painted in the center of the page, surrounded by watery striped caterpillars in one, or a car crash nearby, or another with what could be a melange of bug parts around it. There is the pregnant woman lying on the train tracks in one drawing's upper half and in the lower a praying mantis escapes from her belly button. The images are menacing, frightening but kooky, full of the odd twist or angle. The real distress of the woman lying on the train tracks is sidelined by the praying mantis that is more a harbinger of Disney than of disaster. As an image selector Stecher has evolved through the four Charade series, he has acknowledged the duel between Blake and Pettibon as it sometimes appeared on the page, and has been a thoughtful witness and participant.
Throughout Charade I, II, III, IV Stecher has combed through newspapers and photo histories by combining, appropriating and creating his own images. One can feel the shift between the different methods he uses in selecting and creating images. For example, the portraits and snapshots in Charade III and Charade IV seem almost private in comparison to the first two Charades. Charade IV (in color again) has a group gathered around a red and white checkered tablecloth, a whole fish on a plate and the people's heads half cut-off. What Stecher presents us with is the unintended cropped snapshot, an entire fish, a family, a charade. Various storylines converge but there is no correct way to navigate or interpret the clues and riddles we are presented with. Rather, it is significant to rely on the visual rather than the verbal, or the visual foremost to the verbal. The various definitions of Charade itself seem at once spot-on and slightly off, and this off-balance feeling between title and work is integral to pulling off the whole charade. We are all part of it. Sounds like.....
(Originally published for Clemens Stecher exhibition at University of Hertfordshire, UK, 2010)