Mitch Cairns: The Reader’s Voice

it would be distinguished by syntax, which is basically the structure of sentences. It is not possible to put random words together to create a sentence: in order to make sense a sentence must follow certain structural rules, which we all recognise and understand but probably are unable to explain.

What we can and can’t do in language is dictated by the parameters or rules of syntax. Syntax makes communication intelligible.

The English sentence has a basic rhythm which a writer may enhance or develop in idiosyncratic directions. The sentence is still there, perhaps it is distorted, but what we read and hear is the author’s voice.

Someone once described sentences as having ‘elbows’. Indeed sentences not only bend, they bounce and resonate, metaphorically speaking, they can lift weights.


Made up of around 100 collages, some previously exhibited at Heide Gallery - Cairns partly, and, some might say, paradoxically, conceived ‘The Reader’s Voice’ as a writing project. With a few exceptions it is composed of ‘sentences’ that have no ‘elbows’.

They are ‘sentences’ nevertheless. How they bounce and resonate and lift is up to us.

And so the tantalizing world of the reader’s voice makes it’s entrance.

His collages – one per page – variously composed of cartoons, references to music, French, concrete poetry, and images composed of alphabetic letters, use the now outmoded Letraset in unexpected ways. And Zazzle stickers from his personal archive.

The hard edges of the Letraset create graphic tensions within a world that is formal but not ‘named’ in the usual sense. In Cairns’ hands an impersonal set of marks is used with such lightness, wit and skill that it becomes very personal indeed.

Some of his collages are about the sideways glance – set down in a way that takes the ‘glimpse’, or the stray thought ‘for a ‘walk’ through the city, through memory, and ideas.

They record what happens when the artist pays attention to the flickering, unmediated world of peripheral vision. ‘Warren Truss drives a bus’. The germ of an idea may become corpulent, or suddenly and hilariously lose weight. Suggestions flourish and multiply.

His strategies, or the formal and extraneous constraints that he has adopted, successfully
 subvert, quarantine, or put in brackets the customary workings of the conscious mind. Reflexivity might be thrown out the window, or it sits there flat on the page inviting the reader to shift his/her perspective in ways they have not done before.

Whatever it is we call reality, Cairns seems to say, it is revealed to us only through an active construction in which we participate. ‘The Reader’s Voice’ invites us to do just this.

Cathy Peake

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