I can’t believe I’ve never written about Jon Edgley’s work before now, even though I’ve seen his work in exhibitions a few times and I’ve always really liked what he does. His style is based in cartoon/comic/graphic novel background (not my specialism and I won’t pretend to recognise specifics), and populated by surreal characters. Sometimes they’re in strange physical contortions, other times they wear masks of artificial forced smiles to project satisfaction. It’s often funny in a slightly dark way, observing characters stuck in anxious places.
Staff Only is these ideas collected into a book, and sees Edgley’s style ramped up to the nth degree. Whereas in past exhibitions single figures have been given loads of space, here every page is absolutely packed with imagery. It’s an impressionistic book, rather than a narrative one. (Funny, how deeply embedded our preconceptions of what to expect from a form are, isn’t it? I mean I spent years teaching children the ‘correct’ way to approach books – knowledge which is, of course, essential as a rule. But somewhere along the line I must have forgotten myself that other approaches are available. I confess it took me a moment to settle into this book because I was expecting a linearity which doesn’t exist. Don’t start from my mistake.)
So what impression does Staff Only leave, then – if no narrative, then what mood? It feels like world-building through a stream of consciousness – and to be frank, its world is pretty grim. It’s a world of precarity and exploitation, where an underclass are worked to the edge. Bodies don’t have their own agency, rather they’re tools to be utilised by…well, this is a question. Though companies like Tesco get honourable mentions it would be too simplistic to name one overarching villain figure responsible for the woes of this world, and what this format is good for emphasising is the ubiquity of this sensation. It’s not a specific Big Boss causing this state, but a general state of affairs. Basically, it’s capitalism: particularly our current late-stage form in which matter less as individuals than as – as an actual White House adviser said back in May – “human capital stock”.
The most obvious artistic comparison is perhaps to a kind of Bosch-ian chaos: but at least Bosch’s scenes were frames within the parameters of other worlds. His Hell is a nightmare, but it’s definitely Hell – a universe away from any experience we’ll ever actually have (we hope). The thing which makes Staff Only grim is that it’s most definitely rooted in a world we recognise as our own.
One recurring theme is a sense of exhaustion: these characters are so often tired and frustrated to the point of surrender. There’s no sense of fight against being ripped apart because nobody has the energy for that. Have a plant instead. Have a bath. Those will help. If you sense a wry humour in these empty promises of self-care, this is the pitch of the comedy in this work. Definitely there, but dark as fuck. What other attitude is there to take to the fact that sodding succulents are offered as a solution to deep socio-economic issues and usually only work for supplementing the well-being of an increasingly small number of people who have means – and money – already?
The thing about this point of late-capitalism is that we all know the system doesn’t truly work, and yet the majority of us have no choice but to tacitly permit it by acting within it. It’s interesting that there’s usually no visual difference between the goodies and baddies of a scene – we could all be both. If we’re completely honest with ourselves about the way the ladder works and the sense of what life improvements a step-up might promise, many of us would take it if it were offered.
Occasionally in Staff Only we do get to see figures doing something for themselves – walking, sitting, dreaming. But each time it either feels like they’ve got the scraps of something, or that it’s still not a choice, so much as a demand to be more! It’s that sense in which ways sold to us as ‘escaping the grind’ have become infused with the idea of requiring optimisation. This isn’t an original thought; how many op-eds have I read on the subject in the last few years? But they’re often written with a kind of snarky tone – happy to frame a truism rather than actually look closely at the situation – which ultimately ends up being part of a framework of complicity and surrender. Edgley’s artwork does cast a penetrating eye at the psychological reality created by these conditions. I find Staff Only unsettling and unhappy, but I don’t mind this. It should be. Acknowledging – properly acknowledging – the discomfort inherent in the reality of how things are is important, perhaps (if I’m optimistic) the first step towards conditions changing. This book is a place where you can do that.