Determining the Condition of the System [1]

Len Breen, 2007

These are the draft notes for the introduction to the publication:
'A Landscape of Meaningful Inscriptions', 2007)

Most of the drawings in this anthology have been carried out over the last ten or so years. At various times they formed the basis of individual exhibitions in my studio spaces in London. They are grouped in this publication by the title of those individual exhibitions, each of which was chosen because it represented a theme of significance at the time. For example, 'A Landscape of Meaningful Inscriptions ', is a reference to the world of separate and distant objects, spaces, marks and codes, perhaps similar to those that fill the works of Steinberg, Basquait, de Chirico, and Dali. Even more significantly, the title is a reference to the eponymous tags that litter - or enhance - nearly every wasted space in the hard fabric of the metropolis - tunnels, arches, walls, etc. Each of these 'inscriptions' has its own quality of alienation, of misunderstanding, of meaninglessness and of desperation.

'The Last Broadcast From Egham' - refers to the failure of opportunity; to the desperation to communicate, albeit for the very last time, before the catastrophe descends; to the last message of hope for rescue, forgiveness or understanding. And, 'Our Leaders Deliver the Goods', is a reference to Marcuse's, 'One Dimensional Man' [2], and to the unending vomit of corruption, land grabbing, famines, exploitation, indentured labour, impoverishment, massacres, genocide and forced resettlement, that characterise the world of the 'Post Industrial Civilized Society'. [3]


The drawings are mainly produced in sketchbooks and sequentially finished, though this is not too important. The drawing process starts with line or symbol, which can be abstract or representational; it can be considered or expressive. The composition then evolves or emerges, being informed by other images or symbols, which come to mind or enter into my attention window. My drawings are usually executed with finely hatched black ink line and usually some solid black area. It is a technique is that it is significantly personal - like some art printmaking techniques, etching for example. This is the way in which I start the process of making sense of it all: by concerted engagement with the fine hatching I concentrate the stress of the chaos of my world and draw it, gather the bits of it, into a single intense composition.

As a drawing process proceeds the composition takes on its meaning and further appropriate metaphors, images, symbols and motifs become accessible. These elements have their origins in a matrix of history, experience and interaction. But for my art to have value to me, my personal experience remains a starting point. To begin with, I see war and war cemeteries in particular, as a universal symbol of loss, loss brought about some gratuitous violence by some very unacceptable, hardly human, beings and institutions. War cemeteries for me are aesthetically enigmatic. They form one of the basic patterns and symbols of modern alienation: rows upon ordered and measured rows of dead husbands, dead mothers, dead fathers, dead brothers, dead sisters, dead uncles, dead aunts, and every other dead relative, dead friend and dead associate we could list. War cemeteries are the ultimate statement of arrogance, of insensitivity, of disregard for human existence. They have their nemesis in their corollary: the symbolic representation of loss for the wives, husbands, children, siblings, not forgetting loved friends, colleagues and communities- I start with the dead dad, as for many others, never known.

The visual language of my drawings then regularly engages a visual vocabulary that has been informed by, and acquired through, my life. The symbol of the cross signifies the hypocrisy of religion, its theological absurdity, and significantly, it signifies the historical scale of abuse by the clergy and other thugs - the part that religion has played in the advancement of war and violence. Another repeating symbol, the six-pointed star, represents militarism and institutionalised violence of our so-called advanced western society. The visual vocabulary has a large fund on which to feed.

The history of modern architecture was described by Alexander [4] as 'merely a history of dead monuments' - not, as would be hoped, a history of architecture as a force addressing human needs, I suppose. My architectural training was, as Steinberg [5] said, 'a training for everything other than putting up buildings, the responsibility for which would be overwhelming'. Architectural forms, three dimensional structures, and spaces therefore, are motifs that enter into my compositions with much regularity. As in the work of Steinberg and de Chirico, also Petty [6], the man-made environment comes to bear upon humanity in sometimes demanding, mysterious, alienating and often absurd ways.

My compositions are also usually informed by the data-base knowledge systems that supersaturate much of human existence: from the internet, television, newspapers and journals, from the very environment that one travels through and experiences - all a vast collage loaded with juxtaposed text and images, sounds, smells, shapes and forms. What characterises all these things is that they appear to me to disconnect reality, be disconnected from real meaning; at the same time I recognise that society (the other) sees or experiences all these things as cohesive, rational and even pleasant or attractive. Or it does not see or experience anything good or bad, perhaps knows nothing at all?

Lyotard [7] said, 'it is not that society's structures have become unknowable, but that they have become unrepresentable'. This means to me that they have become entropic, just as in thermodynamics, unable to be measured. The image of visually animated noise that is characterised by a television set out of tune - black and white pixels in frantic disarray - is a good example. The fact is, according to fractal theory, that there is at anyone time the same number of black as white pixels jumping about - a frequency of one! [8] The entropic, or chaotic state has been determined, if not measured, at least able to be represented in some way. So, as artists as we wander through the chaos and do some 'representation', we may in fact, as we resolve the composition, be drawing the very noise of reality - determining a form of resolution for our world!

Just as the theatre has been used throughout history to deliver the discreet political message to the disenfranchised, art, my art, is a language that aims to communicate an alternative message of human representation. Art then can be a form of political action, providing a way of seeing, a way of reasoning outside of a dominant ideological framework.

The surrealists also provide an inspirational methodology, one that involves stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance and replacing their original context. The contradiction created by this reveals, or deconstructs, a new meaning for the object as a more substantial phenomenon than as originally intended. My drawing too embodies a natural juxtaposition and collage, all coloured by a touch of: scepticism, atheism, meaninglessness and anarchism, and peppered as well with some chronic depression and pessimism. So you can to laugh at the absurdity of it all! Then again, as Freud [9] said about laughter - 'it is the means we adopt to resolve the contradiction that defines a joke', the drawing, and perhaps much art, is a way in which the contradictions which proscribe the phenomena of life, is resolved.

I am compelled to draw, not in anyway by the need to produce a portfolio of rich and interesting drawings, to find fame or to sell or shift goods in a commercial context. Rather I am driven by a desperate need to order the chaos that I experience about me. To some extent that is to satisfy, or drive away, the existential phantoms that characterise, perhaps, haunt me - an artist in search of identity.

Len Breen 2007

Learned References & Wise Notes:

[1]      Yau, John, 'A R Penck'. "...a picture is the essential criterion for determining the condition of the system..." Abrams 1984

[2]     Marcuse, Herbert, 'One Dimensional Man'. Beacon 1964.

[3]     See: Gopal, P, 'The story peddled by imperial apologists is a poisonous fairytale.' The Guardian, Wednesday June 28 2006.

[4]     Alexander, Christopher, 'Notes on the Synthesis of Form'. Harvard 1964.

[5]     Rosenberg, Harold, 'Saul Steinberg', Andre Deutsch 1979. See:

[6]     Petty, Bruce. See: and:

[7]     Lyotard, J-F, 'The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge', Manchester 1984.

[8]     Peitgen, H and Ricter, P, 'The Beauty of Fractals'. Springer-Verlag 1986.

[9]     Freud, Sigmund, 'Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious'. Norton 1960.