London, 05.2013
Exhibition catalogue essay

Published on the occasion of Actuations, Mark McCullough's solo-show at Roman Road Project Space, Bethnal Green, London, June 2103.

Full catalogue available here.

Mark McCullough: Actuations

Thinking goes on in trains of ideas, but the ideas form a train only because they are much more than what analytic psychology calls ideas. They are phases, emotionally and practically distinguished, of a developing underlying quality; they are its moving variations, not separate and independent like Locke’s and Hume’s so-called ideas and impressions, but are subtle shadings of a pervading and developing hue.

John Dewey, Art as Experience

During the last few years of his life, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian continuously revisited his final work, Victory Boogie-Woogie (1942–4), erasing almost-completed versions and beginning again – much to the disbelief of his friends who felt that he should have chosen to end his career with a flourish of works in the style of his celebrated ‘New York period’. Instead of producing several different compositions, Mondrian re-worked one painting over and over, and subsequently, he never finished it. When asked for a reason why, he famously replied: ‘I don’t want pictures, I just want to find things out’. (Foster et al., 2007, p308)

The body of work that Mark McCullough has produced in the last two years has sought to use the medium of photography as a means to ‘find things out’ about the physical nature of the spaces that he inhabits. Contrary to the example cited above, the artist continues to generate an almost bewildering quantity of images, yet similarly, the images themselves seem to function, not as finished artworks as such, but as a means to map out further lines of enquiry. They are markers, delineating a process of investigation and study, rather than forming the ‘outcome’ itself.

John Dewey’s major work on aesthetics, Art as Experience, offers an entry point into interpretation of McCullough’s practice. In the book, the American psychologist and philosopher argues for a conception of art that fully takes into account its relationship with lived experience, whereby the ‘task is to restore continuity between refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings and sufferings that are universally recognised to constitute experience’. (Dewey, 1934, p3) Though the nature of a large number works on display in this catalogue are abstract – and thus do not take a form that speaks directly of the ‘everyday’, as might be commonly understood in visual connotations – the process which has led to their creation is rooted entirely in the artist’s daily examination of the spaces and surfaces that make up his immediate environment. It is this lived experience – a continuous exploration of the ‘possibilities that are felt as a possession of what is now and here’ (ibid, p17) that manifests itself as the substance of the work.

While early studies such as Chair (2008) and 5 Photographs (2009) had employed the medium of photography to re-imagine and reconstruct found objects in new forms, it was the accidental loss of a ‘proper’ camera (to borrow McCullough’s own term) and the subsequent gift of an iPod (containing an in-built one) that effected a sea-change in his practice, accelerating its development exponentially. The distance between the length of time required for thought and corresponding action collapsed, and consequently, the immediacy with which the new medium could be operated contributed significantly toward the generation of the vast number of images that now inhabit the artist’s studio, some of which are on display in this exhibition. Debate about ‘the endlessly disposable, rapidly mutable ephemera of the virtual age and its impact on our consumption of relationships, images and communication’ has intensified in recent years (Bishop, 2012) – but in McCullough’s case, digital imaging capabilities have proved an entirely constructive force; technology as a facilitator of the imagination. In conversation, the artist discusses the digital medium with a sense of optimism that recalls the assertions of analogue photography pioneers such as László Moholy-Nagy, who in 1927 wrote that ‘when photography relies on its own possibilities, its results [...] are without precedent. Just one of its features – the range of infinitely subtle gradations of light and dark that capture the phenomenon of light in what seems to be an almost immaterial radiance – would suffice to establish a new kind of seeing, a new kind of visual power’.

The mercurial radiance of light has a recurring presence in McCullough’s work. In Light Lines (2013), a series of flickering lightbulbs, which appear almost identical on first view, reveal an extraordinary level of subtle variation on closer study. It is only through these snapshots of moments in time, registered with a camera lens, that we can perceive this variation – the human eye cannot see it in ‘real’ time. Yet Moholy-Nagy’s words are also apt here in the sense that it is McCullough’s attempt to develop, through the medium of digital photography, ‘a new kind of seeing’ that best characterises the work on display. The content of the images – everything from landscapes to wall surfaces and computer screens – has been subjected to the same process of scrutiny and reconfiguration. Importantly, each image is presented in the same 6 x 4 inch format, thus lending an unexpected equivalence to the diverse range of content – be that a luminous expanse of sky, or the back of a chair in a dingy pub. This heightens the sense that the work presents a particular view of the world, a singular vantage point through which we might reconsider the subject matter contained within each photograph in its relation to the others.

If, as Vilém Flusser has written, ‘images are mediations between the world and human beings’ (Flusser, 1984, p9) then McCullough’s recent work expresses this argument cogently – the images represent a highly personal mediation between the artist and the environment that surrounds him. He speaks of using the medium of photography to open up ‘points of entry’ within which to view a given subject. These points are then further explored through that same medium, occasionally to produce sculptures based on montages of photographs such as Surface Mass (2013), the centre piece of this exhibition. In these instances, the rapid flow of image production is alleviated by a pause, whereby a single labour-intensive work is constructed as a counterpoint. The object becomes a photograph, which is reconfigured to become an object again, and then re-inserted into a three-dimensional space – the process is cyclical, and each cycle of work leads to another. ‘In such experiences, every successive part flows freely, without seam and without unfilled blanks, into what ensues [... and thus,] the enduring whole is diversified by successive phases that are emphases of its varied colours’. (Dewey, 1934, pp37-38)

The seemingly infinite variation of tone and depth comprising one sequence of images with the working title Cloudscapes (2013) suggests that currently, McCullough’s practice has no end point in sight. The images in the series present variants of one another, each one alike, each one different – there are 50 of them but it feels as though there could just as easily be 50 more, or 500. They are but a few glimpses amidst this steady flow of actuations, the significance of which is best contemplated as a whole. Fittingly then, among the traces of influences found around the artist’s studio (including reproductions of works by Gerhard Richter, Ólafur Elíasson and Gordon Matta-Clark), is a copy of Josef Albers’ classic 1963 text, Interaction of Colour – a book which concludes with the affirmation that ‘variants demonstrate, besides a sincere attitude, a healthy belief that there is no final solution in form; thus form demands unending performance and invites constant reconsideration’.

John-Patrick Hartnett, May 2013


Albers, J (1963). Interaction of Colour. Yale, New Haven (2006 edition)

Bishop, C (2012). Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media in Artforum (online) – September 2012, available here [Accessed 10 May, 2013]

Dewey, J (1934). Art as Experience, Perigree, New York (2005 edition)

Flusser, V (1983). Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Books, London (2006 edition)

Foster, H et al. (2007). Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Thames & Hudson, London

Merlau-Ponty, M (1948). The World of Perception, Routledge, London (2004

Moholy-Nagy, L (1927). Unprecedented Photography in Bauhaus: Art as Life, Koenig, London, 2012