Christian Marclay, Actions: Splat Splooch Whap Blub Squich (No. 1), 2014

© Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Written by Jad Dahshan B.A. Art History and Chemistry, 2021 in collaboration with Roko Rumora, PhD Candidate Department of Art History

Christian Marclay’s practice is anything but soundless. Marclay has spent decades producing a variegated oeuvre in which he has navigated and toyed with the fundamental relationships between image, text, and sound. The Swiss American artist’s sound-based practice has evolved and morphed to encompass music, video, performance, installation, painting, screen-printing, and more. In his Actions series, which includes paintings like Actions: Splat Splooch Whap Blub Squich (No.1) (2014), the noisy potentials of language are prodded to animate and orchestrate the painting process itself, compelling the viewer to hear with their eyes.

Against a misty grey background, volcanic oranges and yellows burst across Marclay’s Actions: Splat Splooch Whap Blub Squich (No.1). Like many works of abstract art, this painting vibrates with gestural qualities: the visibly vigorous brushstrokes, dramatic drips of paint, and salient splashes of color on canvas evoke the bodily gestures the artist might have taken in creating this work. They are visual clues that trace back to the sponges, mops, and water guns Marclay uses to apply paint to canvas in this series. Mechanically screen-printed against this vibrancy are onomatopoeic words, as well as cartoon-strip imagery, which illustrate another aspect of Marclay’s painterly gestures: their sounds.

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With the graphic, silkscreened words inspired by comic book onomatopoeia, Marclay introduces a rupture not merely into his abstract compositions, but into the very legacy of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Indeed, the artist offers a parodic interlude into the self-seriousness of the 1940s-1950s art movement which propelled American artists to international stardom. Postwar American Abstract Expressionists approached the canvas as a platform on which to stage the physical actions of painting, rather than as a representational surface displaying a study of a subject. To a degree, Marclay does the same, but with his onomatopoeic whaps and squiches spelling out the silly and slimy sounds of painting, he takes this philosophy to its cartoonishly humorous—and, crucially, audible—extreme.

It is not a coincidence that the bold, graphic words adorning Marclay’s Actions series resemble those found in comic books. Indeed, following a Pop Art sensibility, the artist reinterprets onomatopoeia from graphic storytelling traditions in the context of painting. Pop Artists of the 1960’s and 1970’s turned to everyday mass-market products, like soup cans and vacuum cleaners, as the substance of their work. Comic books and graphic novels were important forms of culture that Pop Artists mined. Pop Art’s embrace of mundane imagery and commercial products stood at odds with Abstract Expressionism, which it closely followed. In this way, Marclay’s Actions series suspends a tension between the histories and philosophies of two cultural impulses within modern American art.

Many of the fundamental ideas regarding collaging, assemblage, and fracture, which underlie the artist’s lifelong practice, can be traced to his early career as a DJ. In the early 1980s in New York, Marclay was among the pioneers of turntablism, or record-scratching. This technique of interrupting a vinyl record’s motion on a turntable to disrupt the music, creating a rhythmic cracking sound, is representative of Marclay’s entire practice in its experimentality. In fact, “the idea of sampling things, collaging them, transforming them, […] was a natural way of making things” during a time when a certain do-it-yourself, subversive, punk attitude was in sway, according to the artist. Marclay would further explore the potentials of record-scratching and collage by assembling shards of different records and playing the amalgam. By the 2000s, fracture as a technique would become the modus operandi behind Actions, as the artist broke away various features from disparate visual traditions and recontextualized them in the form of this series. Marclay’s evocation of the slippery sounds of painting follows the same motivation to elevate the vinyl record scratch: “all these unwanted sounds that were traditionally rejected,” in the artist’s own words.

At the University of Chicago Department of Music, Professor Jennifer Iverson studies the relationships between bodies, sound, and musical technologies that facilitate the exchange of “sonic signifiers” which are, in turn, “soaked with references” to racial and gendered stereotypes. These include machines like the TR-808, which allowed Marclays and his DJ colleagues in the 1980’s to “recontextualize, revise, and rework” musical materials. The turntable has a similar capacity to do this, which Marclay explores to vast extents in his oeuvre. Even in Marclay’s visual artwork, which may seem to have little to do with turntables, the fundamental process of revision and remixing remains present. In the Actions series, while the artist does not directly sample the onomatopoeic sounds of American comic books, he does extract this stylistic device from its original environment in graphic narratives and remixes it to convey the sounds of paint, managing an exchange across media. Marclay’s oeuvre is filled with attempts to push the sound-making capacities of mainstream musical technologies and traditions.

Artist Profile

Christian Marclay
American and Swiss, born 1955

Christian Marclay has spent decades exploring the relationship between sound, image, and language. Born in 1955 in San Rafael, California and raised in Geneva, Switzerland, Marclay performed in a punk band called The Bachelors, Even, inspired by the title of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (La mariée mise å nu par ses célibataires, meme [Le grand verre], 1915-23). Although regarded as one of the pioneers of turntablism (the use of turntables as musical instruments), Marclay does not consider himself a musician, nor has he ever formally studied music. From vinyl record scratching as a DJ, to record smashing on stage with his band, for Marclay music is a probe into the nature of sound.

An inaudible hush that occurs in a performance may contribute to a painting, or a grinding screech from an installation may influence a photograph, the breadth of Marclay’s practice spans across video, performance, sculpture, painting, photography, collage, and installation. Influenced by the chance-determined operations of Fluxus artists (poets, musicians, and visual artists who were part of an international art movement of the 1960s and 1970 based on the Latin word flux meaning constant flow or change), his practice not only investigates the perception of sound, but its expression.

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Division of the Humanities Music: Jennifer Iverson: TR-808: Race, Groove, and Drum