John Monteith & Lou Sheppard: “Signal to Noise”

Exhibition Introduction by Travis Jeppesen

Protagonists in the burgeoning Queer Abstraction movement, which attempts to transcend “mere” representations of the body in an effort to forge effervescent and divergent spatiotemporal relations that effectively expand increasingly conventional notions of what constitutes queerness, John Monteith and Lou Sheppard have conjoined pathways in Signal to Noise, a collaborative exhibition – complementary works that are constantly reflecting and refracting. This complementariness is embedded in a shared interest in architecture and built environments. For Monteith, the departure point is a long-standing interest in Brutalist and Modernist structures he has encountered in his home cities and on his myriad travels, often in countries that have seen their fair share of oppression and war; for Sheppard, as a musician and sound artist, it is the interiors of abandoned industrial sites that have historically been reclaimed as nightlife refuges for queers and their allies – sites that Monteith has also long frequented.

On the other hand, it could be remarked that Monteith and Sheppard have little in common as artists, save for a shared instinct to constantly break down and reconstitute the real, each on his own distinct terms. Departing from the most obvious difference – that is, the visual/sonic dichotomy – Monteith and Sheppard are here seen to erect twin structures, each out of his own medium.

Monteith’s works have taken the form of paintings, drawings, photographs, and textiles, though at their heart, there is the same consistent painterly impulse. Seen from the distance of reproduction, it is easy to mistake his work as being firmly ensconced in the language of classical geometric abstraction. Encountering these works in person, however, quickly robs one of such illusions. In fact, beyond his obvious skills as a colorist, with a highly refined and selective palette of pastels, Monteith’s is fundamentally a drawing-based practice. In his latest textile works – inspired in part by the knitting and cross stitching he learned from his Mother as a child – he unites his long-standing interest in urban architectural form with the generative beats of electronic music, which he listens to in his studio as he is making these works. The inherent spatial qualities of techno are reflected in the ways in which Monteith intuitively represents space in these works – which is also reflected in the title his ongoing suite of drawings, Resonances.

This is where the connection to Sheppard’s sonic practice comes in. Responding directly to the rhythmicality of shape and color of the drawings from which Monteith’s tapestries were created, as well as the cryptic architectural content which is a further connecting line between the two artists’ oeuvres, Sheppard has engineered a new work, Choir (D’Abraxas, Minskaya, Southbank), that consists of nine-single-channel audio installations arranged in the gallery space on human-sized stands embedded in concrete, favored material of Brutalist architects. In fact, Sheppard viewed Monteith’s works as graphic scores that could be “played,” while simultaneously imagining their layered interiors as filled with reverberating sound. This synaesthetic approach is an extension of Sheppard’s ongoing engagement with “sounding,” which originally entailed locating the depth of the ocean floor by sending a lead weight to its bottom, and was later revised to mean sending a sound wave to those depths in order to have it bounce back as an echolocation; Sheppard’s approach thus posits a new means of spatial perception. The loop of the resulting work spans several hours, and is programmed to generate in different iterations, as each channel plays in varied configurations; visiting the exhibition on several occasions, the listener is bound to have a different experience each time: an effect further exacerbated by Sheppard’s creation of a revised sense of echolocation, wherein sounds are reflected back in their harmonics, and in which each of the channels reflects the harmonics of the other as a way of imagining a disjointed, atemporal echolocation. This, in turn, will inevitably update and reverse previous notions one has arrived at, not only of Sheppard’s work, but of Monteith’s in turn. For this reason, there is an inherent movement of unpredictability, of restlessness to this exhibition – which mirrors, perhaps, its artists’ own constant journeying forth, both literally and figuratively, into terrain that somehow manages to appear both familiar and otherworldly. One might argue that this reflects the layering of time as well as the multiple lives that these architectural structures at the core of the exhibition have traversed, and the ways in which queer life and desire have impacted these spaces through their reverberations.

Taking in these two bodies of work together – the ways in which they fade in and out of synaesthetic synchronicity with one another – one comes to realize a hidden mission of Queer Abstraction that has, to my knowledge, not yet been adequately articulated: namely, a reclamation of spaces previously codified as belonging to a hetero-capitalist world order; a re-gaining and re-counting of time outside the matrix of “productive” labor, syncopated and re-programmed into new potentialities of embodiment and inhabitance.