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David Batchelor’s The October Colouring-In Book is a palimpsest.A palimpsest was originally defined as a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been either scraped or washed off in order that the page can be reused to create another document. Sometimes this was because of the scarcity of vellum, which was used by monks or scribes for illumination. Although palimpsests could be produced as an economic solution to the problem of limited supplies of writing materials, other examples were made in response to the need to update or overwrite legal documents or religious tracts.
The blackboard or whiteboard is a more recent manifestation of the palimpsest with text and images written or drawn, and then rubbed out in readiness for the next lesson. Many artists have worked with this idea, such as Robert Rauschenberg with his 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing, which involved his asking his mentor, Willem de Kooning, for a drawing which he would then systematically erase, using many rubbers over many weeks. Rauschenberg was thus responding to and overwriting his teacher through the resulting erased image, leaving just a few flecks of the original drawing.
In the 1980–90s Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival produced a series of palimpsest works which involved taking classic texts such as Kafka’s Amerika, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter or Melville’s Moby Dick and overworking these on large panels or canvases in such a way as to visualize a response triggered by, and sometimes incorporating, the paper texts themselves.
Batchelor’s book of images, one per page, with blank pages in between, 112 pages in all, and without any accompanying explanation, result from his selection of pages from chosen issues of the journal October. October is one of the leading international publications of art criticism and has been produced for 40 years without using a single image in colour. Batchelor’s worked-on pages, as a series of individual works, appear in the exhibition; ‘Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015’, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (15 January–6 April 2015)
The most notable, but slightly different, precedent for this publication is painter Tom Phillips’ 1980 A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. Phillips set himself the task of randomly selecting a ‘coherent’ book from a second-hand shop for the equivalent of three pence, and then began working over and into the pages in response to the original story, titled A Human Document and written in 1892 by W.H. Mallock. Phillips has continued working on this throughout his life and a number of updated editions have resulted. It’s been his daily work-out alongside other projects. The pages of A Humument are rich in playful literary and visual responses to create new narratives.
Batchelor project, however, has a different purpose though employing similar means. He says in an interview:
In the 40 years since it was first published, there has not been a single colour image in any issue of October. This is no accident: it is a part of their campaign to devalue the visual in favour of the verbal, to privilege text over image. Mine is a small act of Technicolor revenge.
Batchelor works over the texts with brightly coloured circles and triangles and with areas of black. The text often shows through the transparent colour, and the black areas reveal fragments of text. It does seem as if the status of the text is being pushed back by the overlay of pattern. Instead of critical text speaking for itself about visual culture it becomes subsumed, part of a surface visual pattern. What is amusing is how the new images make us strain for meaning when perhaps they claim none. The titles of each page-piece, as revealed on the back cover, seem mostly to be found in the fragments of the page text – again changing the emphasis and significance of the original titles from which the piece comes.
The blank pages between the pieces seem simply to separate them, yet given the nature of the project again take on a new blank significance.
The lack of any interpretative material is appropriate as it would simply undermine the project and it allows even more freedom for the reader-viewer. Even so, Batchelor does title the project ‘Colouring-In’, which has many connotations and directs us to view this project in particular ways.
Personally, I prefer the Tom Phillips Humument project as simply more intriguing and developmental, with a narrative, but there is indeed a point to this one. I just wonder if it needed so many images to make that point; perhaps the nature of abstraction means that all images are invariably different even if they look similar.
As ever with Ridinghouse, the production is good and makes for a pleasurable book-object that gets the viewer really thinking, which makes it all worthwhile.
The October Colouring-In-Book by David Batchelor is published jointly by Ridinghouse and common-editions. 112pp., 44 colour illus, £12.00 (pbk). ISBN 978 1 909932 07 4
Media credit: All images © David Batchelor 2015.