New Orleans

Michael Pajon: Palimpsest at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

To invoke a palimpsest is to find oneself wading into an extremely fertile territory of meaning. With equal relevance to the development of mathematics, geology, architecture, and memory studies, the term has transcended its origins as a reusable writing parchment in ancient Greece to become a material metaphor for the multilayered history of a particular place, epoch, or individual subject. Despite the term’s dynamic etymological history, the nature of the palimpsest is twofold: a text that preserves specificity while exposing the contamination of itself by another. Thus the palimpsest is a document of impressions and utterances—an entangled text that bears and accumulates simultaneously. These complex relations between space, place, body, and time underpin Michael Pajon’s current show at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans.

Michael Pajon. The Night was Clear as Her Puddled Tears. 2014. Mixed media collage on book covers. 11 x 19 inches. Image: Courtesy of the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 2015.

Michael Pajon. The Night Was Clear as Her Puddled Tears, 2014; mixed-media collage on book covers; 11 x 19 in. Courtesy of Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

A series of mixed-media collages inspired by early Catholic funerary art, Pajon’s works comprise fragments of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century print matter and collectible paraphernalia: antique illustrations from matchbooks, periodicals and manuals on anatomy, figures from popular children’s books, scientific renderings of plants and animals, allegorical cabinet cards, and icons snatched from board games. Resonating with Roland Barthes’ description of the palimpsest as a “galaxy of signifiers…that is never closed,” the collages fuse together an anachronistic constellation of signs that point to—as well as refuse—coherent narratives.[1] Cryptic, moving, and occasionally frightening, Pajon’s works are archeological excavations into the irony and poignancy within images, and provocative responses to the various myths associated with identity.

To look at Pajon’s images is inevitably to wonder about their maker. Born in Chicago, Pajon obtained a BA at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked as an assistant and studio manager to the printmaker and poet Tony Fitzpatrick, an artist known for busy compositions bursting with Catholic icons, pop-cultural referents, and signs of urban life in the Big Easy.[2] Clearly influenced by Fitzpatrick’s aesthetic process of collecting and remixing personal and evocative materials and ephemera into a homemade cosmology, Pajon’s iconographic choices differ from his mentor’s aesthetic in their fragility and hermetic qualities. Given Pajon’s meticulous cut-work and careful attention to the delicate nature of these paper artifacts, there is a sense that the works are not only exercises in the beautiful, but also extremely private documents. It’s as if Pajon’s own aesthetic were being driven by an internal logic governed by its own rules—a public presentation of accumulated local narratives, intimate secrets, and fears. This is keenly felt when viewing the series, particularly as one registers the shift from viewing to reading and the transformation from picture to text. Engagement slows to a pace similar to reading a poem or transcribing a dream; memories and intuitions are called up, gaps between jarring contexts are pronounced, and a final interpretation can never be completely grasped.

Michael Pajon. A Song, A Courtship, A Ritual. 2014. Mixed media collage on antique book covers. 14 x 28 inches. Image: Courtesy of the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 2015.

Michael Pajon. A Song, A Courtship, A Ritual, 2014; mixed-media collage on antique book covers; 14 x 28 in. Courtesy of Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

One of the strongest works in the exhibition, Asterion Awaits His Offerings (2014), takes up the traditional schemata of Christ’s ascension into heaven and recomposes the body with illustrations of a skeletal ox head and a spliced (albeit inaccurate) anatomical illustration of the circulatory system, the figure’s palms directed toward the Earthly institutions of modern humankind (industry, regulated transportation, state power, consumerism) and an ambiguously swirling landscape of cloud and fire above. Stretching from right to left, the work’s horizontality speaks to both the strong compositional structure of Japanese prints and the frescoes and murals of Italian Renaissance art, and allows the eye to follow the wanderings of a repeated Little Red Riding Hood figure across the eerie span of the picture field.

Michael Pajon. Asterion Awaits His Offerings. 2014. Mixed media collage on antique book covers. 16 x 32 inches. Image: Courtesy of the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 2015.

Michael Pajon. Asterion Awaits His Offerings, 2014; mixed-media collage on antique book covers; 16 x 32 in. Courtesy of Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Reminiscent of the terrifying incisions of Surrealist artists such as Max Ernst and Giorgio De Chirico, Pajon’s work collapses the banal and the fantastic to tease out the unsettling force of influence within the collage process. In its transfer of materials from one context to another, collage is marked as the ultimate affront to Western traditions and principles of painting, namely through its challenge to the notion that a picture is an imaginary transparency through which an illusion is created.[3] A medium of dynamism, rupture, fragmentation, juxtaposition, and simultaneity, collage refuses the coherent unity and linear spatio-temporal relations of painting and sculpture and thereby disrupts the normal contracts between what is depicted, what is seen, and what is meant. Burying itself within the gray areas of signifier and signified, collage exposes the contingent nature of language, image, and intention.

Thus, it is no wonder that Pajon’s work reaffirms the relations between collage and poetry—a process of collecting words, fragments, and signs that rescues the visual and the linguistic from anesthetizing domestication and dilution. It is in this way that the word palimpsest extends not only to the material process of collage as a process of layering that Pajon adopts for this series, but the ways in which collage continues to keep interpretation an open question through time.

Michael Pajon: Palimpsest is on view at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans through March 28, 2015.

[1] Roland Barthes, S/Z (New York: Macmillan Press, 1973), p. 34.

[2] Many thanks to Gallery Director Matthew Weldon Showman and Jonathan Ferrara of Jonathan Ferrera Gallery in New Orleans for speaking to me about Michael Pajon’s work, process, and educational background. For more on Fitzpatrick’s work, see: Dirty Boulevard: Tony Fitzpatrick, with texts by Lou Reed and Mickey Cartin (New York: The John McEnroe Gallery and Hard Press Inc.), 1997; and Jennifer Borum, “Tony Fitzpatrick Review,” Artforum, March 1993, p. 97.

[3] See Marjorie Perloff, “Collage and Poetry,” The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Vol. 1), ed. Michael Kelley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 384-387.