In these days of increasingly minimal lifestyles, when all we need is a digital melange of laptop with Bluetooth, BlackBerry, mp3, mobile phone with wireless internet facilities, digital TV with wall-mounted plasma screen, DAB radio, and SatNav in our car, the idea of collecting the analogue physical scraps of memorabilia might seem somewhat quaint and anachronistic. If, however, you can condense that collection into two-dimensional representations – paintings that demonstrate a high labour-intensive quotient – that can be hung on all those walls not dominated by a giant plasma screen, then an agreeable resolution has been reached. Those sachets of sauce, sugar and salt, the subject of Stephen Palmer’s paintings, now re-invented, have been imbued with new meaning, have been elevated above the level of utilitarian banality, their histories amplified and their significance magnified.

Just as, in their Pop Art paintings of the 1960s, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg were serious about representing, in spectacular style, the ephemera of modern living as, in effect, they preserved events, moments and objectified singularities from that era, Palmer has been moved to preserve something of his own response to the adventures of modern living. Whether it be the pre-packed sugar or condiment sachets from holiday flights, matchboxes found on the street or the cheap junk-mail pens that fell, unsolicited, through his letterbox, Palmer has demonstrated his emotive attachment through this series of paintings to those objects and, more importantly, their associations and histories. In our ‘Society of the Spectacle’ so eloquently critiqued by Guy Debord in his titular book, we are easily seduced by – and have become addicted to – the spectacular and the sensational. But, as a result of this, we overlook the ordinary details, the minutiae of life; the scale of things seems to have become a criterion, a determining factor as to whether our attention is drawn to them or not. If something is spectacular then it is memorable and worthy of recall, we are drawn towards it and it achieves a place in history.

Whilst this craving for the spectacular has always been a part of human nature, closely allied to what Sigmund Freud termed the ‘Pleasure Principle’, it has, however, become more pronounced in the recent past. But let’s turn the tables and consider that something as apparently insignificant as a sachet of salt from an airline meal is in fact quite significant, that as a signifier of a memorable event, it is a condensed index of memory, an aide-mémoire of that aeroplane flight which was itself a signifier of an event removed from everyday, humdrum life – whether that be a holiday, a business or cultural trip – re-connecting Palmer and connecting us with that event which might be worthy of a chapter rather than a paragraph in the Book of Life. As an alternative to leaving such memorabilia stashed away in drawers or boxes, for silverfish and booklice to consume, how much better it is to paint them in oils, on a canvas, against a neutral ground to be hung on blank walls and thus offer their flat facsimiles for many to witness and share – the fruits of a pictorial taxidermy for discarded or exhausted cheap consumables – in an act of recycling with a difference.

This neat description of a neat resolution to a rather insignificant problem is only an appetiser, what if there is a far deeper set of meanings underpinning this rather simplistic description of an apparently straightforward artistic process? Where in this phenomenon, for instance, does the obsessive serial collection process (the vestiges of our hunter-gatherer instincts, or the result of over-zealous potty training?) end and the artistic process begin, and when do these ephemera become art objects? How important are their banal, understated aesthetics and how are these affected by their re-contextualisation? How do timelines play a part in their selection for these paintings? Do their colours and spatial arrangements in these paintings play an important role in the contextualisation of these objects (is this deliberate or merely arbitrary?) and if so how does this influence our perception of them and, in turn, their pictorial significance? These are all questions that the viewer has to ask when considering these works, and it seems that there are more questions posed than answers proffered in Palmer’s paintings. So far, so good. Different viewers will, of course, come up with different answers according to their experience, thus corroborating the ‘Reception Theory’ proposed by Hans-Robert Jauss and Stanley Fish, that is that a text or artwork undergoes completion in a different way each time it is read or viewed.

This documenting of collected ephemera is of course a process that was beloved of Kurt Schwitters in his creative heyday in the 1920s, a process that was, in turn, a descendant of seventeenth century Dutch still-life painting. Schwitters’ collages of the early 1920s, using found tram tickets, stamps, tobacco labels, sweet wrappers, etc were a precursor to and the progenitor of his famed Merzbau. Schwitters seemed to possess an intuitive sense of composition, what Kandinsky or Miró had done with painted networks of symbols and squiggles, Schwitters did with his scraps of ephemera, which, far from being abstract, were the utilitarian traces and remnants of contemporary living, invoking strong associations for the viewer, and it is this emotional response of the viewer, triggered by the eclectic collection of objets trouves, that is the key to the reception of his collages. This phenomenon of association is, in turn, the key to our response to the paintings of Stephen Palmer.

It is our initial, instant response, our cognition that is recognition, of these objects in his paintings that gives them their impact, not their details, those minutiae, so lovingly simulated and reproduced by Palmer, which are somehow extraneous, like scabs on the skin of their meaning, superficial blemishes on their ontological shell. A little later than Schwitters – in the 1930s and for a very different reason – Walter Benjamin took it upon himself to collect and archive a whole range of ephemera, including postcards, photographs, tickets and receipts, all of which were carefully archived. For Benjamin the commonplace was an important category in ordering the reality of modern life. Archives require careful cataloguing and indexing; Benjamin did all this in a loose sort of fashion but most of all it is his densely written notebooks that give us a clear picture of his motives for his obsessive collecting. In a similar fashion art historians have had to dig and delve to reveal the extent of Andy Warhol’s obsession for collecting, his ‘Time Capsules’ (a huge hoard of cardboard boxes filled with memorabilia) are still offering up surprises and insights for researchers, offering an ever larger window into Warhol’s life. In, perhaps, a more modest way, we are also being offered a glimpse into Stephen Palmer’s life through these carefully rendered paintings of his collected ephemera.

Maybe then, we should be thankful to Stephen Palmer for these accessible and engaging paintings of his – the rigorous work is all his, the visual treat ours – no trawling through documentation, cardboard boxes, journals or archive catalogues for us, just an absorbing interchange of memory and imagination on our behalf as we fix our own version of their history. The only thing to exhaust us here is the very thought of all those hours, filling all those weeks and months, that Palmer spent assiduously re-inventing those objects on canvas, with those tiny and precise brush-strokes that give us not photo-real simulations but characterful representations that carry his signature touch, giving them a life all of their own with an acute sense of their historical significance. May Palmer’s pictorial archiving of this evidence of his obsessive collecting long continue, and should his work eventually become represented in an extended pictorial catalogue – thrice removed from reality, so to speak – then so much the better. I can’t wait for that.