It might not be obvious, but Jock Mooney is part of a tradition. At first glance you might presume I’m referring to a tradition of men obsessively scaling the world down to a manageable size, so they can vainly reassert some control over their demons: constipated, grey bank clerks tying voodoo doppelgangers of branch managers to 00 scale train tracks in dimly lit attics in Croydon. That’s a tradition for sure, but not the one I’m thinking of. No, Mooney’s cavalcade of human folly, variously depicted in his sculptures, drawings and songs, is ripe with signs of the carnivalesque.

The Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin took possession of the carnivalesque in his seminal study of medieval folk culture, ‘Rabelais and his World’. In his analysis of Rabelais, a medieval chronicler of vice, folly and the grotesque, Bakhtin sought to put some flesh on the skull of a pre-enlightenment carnival culture of bodily excess, anarchic satire and secular ribaldry, subsequently repressed by the rationality and moral piety of modern Christian Europe. Central in Bakhtin’s reading of the carnivalesque culture of rude subversion was its desire to turn the world upside down. In a folk culture of debasement released in annual festivals across Europe the aim was to invert the cradle of mankind to show there was nothing kind about man. The great and good become the wretched and the soiled, while the thin line between humans and animals dissolves.

The surviving imagery from this alternative tradition shows men with chicken heads jostling for space with mutated humans, whose bodies are always ‘unfinished’, lumpy, full of excess and pregnant with all kinds of exploding matter. In the carnivalesque, parody, satire and debasement are the overriding impulses. This scurrilously disrespectful, humorous attitude towards the powerful is where the pleasure of carnivalesque art comes from. The lampooning of power, through the defamiliarising of the familiar, opens up a temporary space for the oppressed to laugh in a physiological squeal of transient delight as the mighty are reduced to monkeys. In many respects it’s an unapologetic adolescent attitude, something picked up on by Mike Kelley, whose own work displays echoes of the carnivalesque pleasure in the belly as well as the mind:

“I think an adolescent attitude is the attitude of the humorist, like somebody who knows the rules but doesn’t see any reason to be involved in them. The adolescent period interests me the most. Modernism usually valorizes childhood, childishness or insanity – something that’s supposedly pre adult. But then adult art has to get involved in questions of faith and belief, and I don’t have any faith or belief, so I don’t want to make adult art. I’d rather make adolescent art”.
This strain of antiauthoritarian rebellion survived as a largely subterranean ‘other’ to the ideals, purity and perfection of the enlightenment, classicism and later the more utopian variants of modernism. Against every image of porcelain perfection was offered a contorted gob of pox. In this way this alternative canon has consistently produced images that operate as check, as reminder of the folly of pompous presumption on humanity’s part. It’s this anti tradition that is the backdrop to Mooney’s work. In true carnivalesque tradition he should despise me for revealing his paternal ghosts, but carrying on regardless, his work is haunted by laughing fools, round bellies, gaping mouths and mutant creatures of Bruegal, Bosch, Tiepolo, Daumier, Goya, Hogarth, Gillray, Ensor, Grosz, Leigh Bowery and McCarthy. They stalk him.

Lemmings on the march

In Mooney’s ongoing work, Inventory (2004-ongoing), a morphing, cornucopia of perverted ‘toys’ crawls along the top of a wooden table. This exodus of twisted nightmare represents the fevered, meticulously crafted, physical manifestations of the artist’s dank cavern of a mind. The tabletop seems to become the fictional vista of Highway 61 – a mythic location where a mob of historical and contemporary figures assembles. After taking the pink pill, you might find yourself seeing all kinds of horror and hysteria being played out here. A smiling medusa with pink nipples rubs noses with an Eskimo who assaults a leprechaun, who dances on an arrowed studded brain, while a disembodied hand pinches a dodo who pecks at George Bush’s eyes. Nearby a turd with a flower stuck in it eyes Hitler and a Buddha burger, while Mary Magdalene howls as blood gushes from her eyes. It’s an excessive, vulgar, contradictory vision, where venality in the guise of the President in mental debit, jostles with the flora and fauna of nature. It’s at once an exodus from an invisible orifice or portal, as well as a cathartic exorcism. The sheer volume of tiny toys spilling out along the wooden table points to a futile attempt on Mooney’s part to expel the demons in his curiously populated skull. The humour in Inventory resides in the folly of Mooney’s cataloguing, based as it is on his management of incomprehension, rather than his victory of complete knowledge.

In Mooney’s drawings, faux naïve scrawls offer similarly grotesque visions of our daily diet of apocalypse for breakfast. In one image a forlorn dog with four wonderbra breasts eyes us seductively – the legend underneath reads “Hello Boys”. Defiance in the face of accepted ‘wisdom’ is similarly demonstrated in Mooney’s assessment of the calorific virtues of munching celery, which as he quite rightly points out, doesn’t make up for the fact it “is shit”. Elsewhere in Mooney’s expansive practice, his songs similarly chronicle the pine plank mentality of our Ikea society, where eBay obsessives slosh around on booze cruises for cheap vodka – as he sarcastically intones “what a ride”.

If Mooney’s work were simply a sour expulsion of bile, superior snapshots of other people’s hell, it would be unremittingly grim, like being accosted by a bellicose drunk on a night bus home. Fortunately, the humour that riddles his work saves it from hectoring hollowness. Like carnival humour, there’s a sense of a twisted community of desperation, defiantly asserting its right not to be squashed by the banal horror of our ‘Ikea society’. This spirit of perhaps futile defiance finds amusing expression in Mooney’s picture of a hairy, grubby head (like Dave Lee Travis on PCP). Twisting the cloying tagline of the old Remington advert (“I liked it so much I bought the company”) Mooney’s sticks the proverbial two fingers up with his corporate motto “he hated it so much he didn’t buy the company”.

John Beagles is an artist and lecturer in CVCS at Edinburgh College of Art