Review: A Life More Ordinary at Westspace

A Life More Ordinary at Westspace
Charles O'Loughlin


20.03.09 – 11.04.09
Free Artist Talk: Thursday 09.04.09 12.30-1.30pm
Level 1, 15 - 19 Anthony Street
Melbourne, Vic, 3000, Australia
+61 3 9328 8712

Gallery 3

400 years ago, we decided to switch from deductive to inductive reasoning as our favourite way of making new knowledge. Of course it is widely acknowledged (at least it is often mentioned in the pages of New Scientist) that inductive reasoning is not really how science proceeds. Nevertheless, statistical analysis is fundamental to the process of inductive reasoning. Forecasts and probabilities play a massive role in shaping our lives at every level from policy and public funding to corporate activities and product development. Much of the data is useless and, even where it isn't. it is often used in a way which is misleading. From my previous life as a forecaster in a bureaucracy, I know that data is specifically selected for its visual impact in presentations and media release. 

O'loughlin's show at Westpace is a group of beautifully executed gouache paintings. These paintings are abstractions, in the literal sense that they provide information distanced from its source. They are also representative painting since they are hand rendered reproductions of charts produced in commercial spreadsheet software. They are formalist works in that their value can be thought of as being contained wholly in the work - the colour, composition and material of construction. And yet they are the artefacts of a conceptual project extending over years.  
These are charts - barcharts, line charts  and bubble charts. There is no textual information on the charts to identify them as such, or to provide context for the information. However, they are accompanied by bound books of raw data which are really a key for decoding the work. The data records O'Loughlin's social and professional interactions with individuals. People are assigned a number and the charts display the frequency of contact with the artist over time. Eventually O'Loughlin plans to use the data to produce forecasts of his life. Sci-fi geeks will be thinking of Asimov's psycho-history. As with Asimov, this does make us think of some of the concerns we should have with statistical profiling (think pre-crime).
In the realm of non-fiction, we might consider Onians' concepts of neuro-art-history - where the plasticity of the brain means that neural networks are formed and shaped by environment and frequently repeated stimuli. For example. Onians suggests, the Florentines developed perspective because of their exposure to the rectilinear buildings left by the Romans  rectilinear architecture and, as a result, developed techniques for painting perspective. We are exposed to a lot of statistical information, often presented in charts, and usually of extremely limited interpretive value (as an example, consider the often viewed exponential population growth chart - this always looks like the population is about to cause the chart to explode, yet if the scale of either axis is adjusted you can see how misleading that is  - the chart had the same shape when the human population increased from 10,000 to 20,000 individuals).
O'loughlin's data is, if not meaningless, almost completely useless. The graphs themselves cannot be related back to the data from which they were drawn. And even if they could, what would be the point? O'loughlin says that he selects the charts to display based on aesthetic considerations. The data set which O’loughlin is collecting steps above political or economic considerations and this allows it to encompass all of those concerns regardless of when they apply. The work is just as relevant to statistics about the horrors or war, birth rates or deforrestation.

Most importantly, O'loughlin's works are beautiful paintings with great composition and carefully considered colour relationships. As I mentioned previously, to a surprising degree, aesthetics trumps all when it comes to presenting statistical information.

By Sam Leach

Sam Leach

Leach is an artist living and working in Melbourne. He was born in Adelaide in 1973 and moved to Melbourne in the early 90s. Leach completed his honours degree in painting at RMIT in 2004 and is currently doing his masters. In 2006 Leach won the Metro5 prize and the Geelong contemporary art prize. This year he was a finalist in the Archibald. Leach shows at Nellie Castan gallery in Melbourne (show coming up in June) and Sullivan and Strumpf gallery in Sydney