Tamar Jeffers McDonald

Exclamation Marks

Although as a film historian I often review or critique written texts, art commentary is a little outside of my expertise. But there are two reasons why I do feel qualified to offer some words here. Firstly, while working within abstraction, Daniel Pettitt imbues some of his works with a graphic quality and intensity of colour that seem to me to evoke the flashing neon signs and audience invitations of Hollywood, as place, factory and product. The directness of these images’ appeal has similarities within the industry I study. Secondly, and more personally, the pictures excite and intrigue me regardless of my academic context, but simply as a viewer, at once inviting my approach and frustrating my understanding. The push-pull tension thus set up operates throughout the pieces in a variety of ways. 

On a visit to his studio, Pettitt mentioned to me that the exclamation mark-like form I saw recurring in some of his pictures was inspired by the one at the end of the title of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma! Captivated by an anecdote he had heard about the original title – which was deemed to lack pizzazz before it acquired the snappy punctuation – Pettitt had begun to incorporate the mark in some of his works, becoming a reoccurring motif this last decade. In Grand Parade (i!) (2022), the ecphoneme wrests dominance from any sentence and floats free, insisting on its own importance. Here doubled, topping and tailing itself, it demands to be seen as the key point of focus, overshadowing – even tyrannising over – the deep saturated ultramarine blue and paler violet on which it rests. 

The exclamation mark may be seen to return in Grand Parade (July), (2022), where the clashing and fizzing magentas, reds, yellows and overlain blues seem to hint at text worked and discarded. Here the mark feels more organic, present in the large bone-shaped symbol that recurs across the bottom of the picture, almost as if printed in blood. Here that push-pull tension reveals itself in another way common to many of Pettitt’s works: the refusal to make meaning evident is contrasted and inverted by the refusal to hide the way the images are made. Equally, the artist is not interested in concealing the source of the paper on which he is working through his ideas: a University of Brighton logo bleeds cheerfully through the magenta wash in Grand Parade (Black Rainbow) (2022), perhaps anchoring it to a time and place of making. Some texts can be left legible, then. 

Time and place is all the more explicit in the titling of this and other drawings in the series which emerged: Grand Parade. This is the name of a central section of Brighton, home to the Art and Media campus of the city’s university and where Pettitt was based for much of 2022. Once the seat of fashionable seaside visitors in centuries past, the rows of townhouses laid out around an elongated ellipse of grass operated like a stage set, one could ‘see’ and be ‘seen’. 

But overall Pettitt continues to allow the proliferation of pathways into the work, closing down any singular explanation of meaning, while opening up appreciation of making, of his craft. In Grand Parade (Black Rainbow) the sensuous colours of the paint contrast with the black swoops which reproduce the strokes that made them. Here too are works uninterested in hiding their creation: the viewer can imagine, almost feel, the brush and pen making the marks. Similarly, Skeleton Tree (2022) proudly wears its bold running loops, fillings-in and, especially, its paint drips, in ways which open up about its own manufacture while continuing to refuse any singular interpretation. 

Pettitt’s works calls to mind affinities with other painters: with works possessing the smudgy velvet petal-soft coloured forms and dream-like qualities of an Odilon Redon, while others such as Grand Parade (Pageant) (2022) has, from a distance, some of the graphic clarity of a Lichtenstein. Up close, however, it vexes the eye by refusing easy interpretation, displaced calligraphic forms compete with melting brushstrokes, even as it rewards with the pellucid flow of turquoise and cobalt blues, luminous as stained glass. That same turquoise appears in crystal clarity in Crop Rotation (Brighton) (2022), as a vertical swoop of purple bleeds and seeps across the canvas. Again that profitable tension so observable in Pettitt’s work is found, here provoked by the hard clear lines of the blue contrasting with the fuzziness of the diffusing purple. 

My favourite work is Grand Parade (())) (2022) where the pure visual pleasure called forth by the colours enjoyably jars with the frustration provided by what is almost, but not quite, legible text. The viewer’s busy mind works to understand the symbols: is that sign a signature, an elegantly elongated DP that indicates authorship? 

As a viewer I am seduced by the colours and textures at the same moment that, as an analyst, I am playfully confounded by the enigma of illegibility. Here, as with many of these works, the frisson of the push-pull works to keep me riveted before the image, exclaiming my excitement. 

Tamar Jeffers McDonald is a film historian and Dean of the School of Art & Media, The University of Brighton 



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