Andrew Paul Wood – 6 December, 2016
This isn't a comprehensive survey and it doesn't pretend to be. An obvious split with older photography is the naked acknowledgement of the broken contract with realism. There is an acknowledgement of the validity of moving image and photobook, which is a corrective counterpoint to the recent Te Papa survey. However, even factoring in their relative career stages, it's sometimes difficult to see what's going on through the scrim of influences not completely digested and synthesised.
Andrew Beck, Holly Best, Jordana Bragg, Conor Clarke, Chris Corson-Scott, Solomon Mortimer, Ane Tonga, Shaun Waugh, and Rainer Weston.
The Devil’s Blind Spot: Recent Strategies in New Zealand Photography
Curated by Lara Strongman
19 November 2016 - 12 March 2017
One of the really great things about Christchurch Art Gallery is an on-going commitment to younger and emerging artists, which is part of the impetus behind The Devil’s Blind Spot: Recent Strategies in New Zealand Photography, curated by CAG senior curator Lara Strongman. The title is taken from the 2004 collection of short essays The Devil’s Blind Spot: Tales from the New Century by German writer/director Alexander Kluge. This is fitting as he similarly seeks to stimulate the consciousness with close and unexpected perspectives.
Photography is the supreme visual medium of our time, ever threatening to supplant reality. The advent of cameras linked directly to the internet by the mobile phone has made the photograph ubiquitous and rewired the way we see our environment - Baudelaire’s “monstrous nausea of posters” for the digital age. With this in mind Strongman has elected to concentrate on New Zealand artists who were born in the 1980s and ‘90s, who grew up with the digital image and other ways that they differ from earlier generations of photographers.
This isn’t a comprehensive survey and it doesn’t pretend to be. An obvious split with older photography is the naked acknowledgement of the broken contract with realism - Pilate’s retort “What is Truth?” (John 18:38). There is an acknowledgement of the validity of moving image and photobook, which is a corrective counterpoint to the recent Te Papa survey. However, even factoring in their relative career stages (but to be fair, most have been exhibiting for a while now), it’s sometimes difficult to see what’s going on through the scrim of influences not completely digested and synthesised.
For example, Chris Corson-Scott’s art-historically significant image of his late father’s studio (more interesting to me than, though strangely at odds with, the accompanying long-exposure landscapes), is still heavily indebted to Neil Pardington and the social associations of its subject matter. In the landscapes there is a strong aesthetic genealogy with Haru Sameshima (with whom he shares a studio) and Mark Adams. There are elements of Ans Westra’s environmental images, and Corson-Scott consciously aligns himself nineteenth-century New Zealand artist Alfred Sharpe’s scenes of colonial deforestation and French photographer Eugene Atget documenting of about to be demolished buildings in Paris with an ancient bellows camera at the turn of the previous century. The anachronism of landscape is conscious and earnest, but has it found its own voice? And yet, his portrait of Mark Adams touching up a portrait of Tony Fomison has a poetic, Old Dutch Master quality to it that is very moving.
Ane Tonga’s Grills and Fakaētangata series, documenting the Tongan practice of nifo koula (gold crowned teeth), for all its spontaneity, questions about culturalised notions of beauty, mana, and self-aware playing to Palangi art world voyeurism, could have, perhaps, been edited back further to bring out their strengths. Their pursuit of spontaneity over the technical tends to dilute their appeal and amplify their flaws when presented in quantity - basically, there’s just too many pictures for the allotted space and they can’t breathe. The strongest images echo the powerful symbolic and visual mouth tropes of Anne Noble’s Ruby’s Room works of 1998-2007, while the weaker resort to the most obvious compositional impulses and coast along, but are definitely coasting in the right general direction.
Jordana Bragg is represented by ten stills from a video documentation of Bragg’s performance piece Days Since and Again (So Soon) and originally exhibited on-line in a way that redefines linear sequential time and notions of what it means to experience and be present. In a way it could be thought a little intellectually dishonest to pin Bragg’s butterfly-like practice to the white walls of the gallery in static form when its natural ecology is social media - especially the ephemerality of Snapchat. Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s complicated long poem “Poem without a hero” comes to mind with its attempt to represent the flow and fragmentation of memory and consciousness.
Rainer Wilson attempts to deconstruct the CAG photographer John Collie’s postquake images of the gallery building with a painterly clone tool (reminding me quite a lot of earlier Andre Hemer paintings). Shades of looking into The Matrix. Another group of works that previously only appeared on-line, are also here, printed luxuriantly on satin. There is a complex interplay between the physical object and virtual image, and the sheer mass of images that can be created quickly (whether they leave any lasting impression, of course, is another matter). They are attractive works, but feel more like a light snack than a substantial meal, though that is a perfectly legitimate area to explore when endless bombardment of media presses us into an eternal present with neither past nor future.
The apparent banality of Conor Clarke’s subject (a Becher/Frank Breuer-esque catalogue of construction sites in Berlin) in her Scenic potential works belies the complex editing together of individual focal elements (taken with an analogue camera) that create such oddly vast, sublime, yet oddly hyperreal and intense, spare, lunar landscapes. The influence of Wayne Barrar is palpable, and the work is also clearly part of the same topographical sphere as Lloyd Godman, Murray Hedwig, Bruce Forster.
Shaun Waugh is represented by three discrete suites of work. ΔE2000 1.1 (deltaE 1.1) takes an interesting conceptual slant on the familiar culture of photography as much as the digital photograph itself: an installation of twenty-four found Agfa film boxes framing an exactly matched colour-matched monochrome print. I am reminded of John Nixon’s monochrome paintings, which by happy coincidence are a very similar shade and intensity of orange.
The second grouping is Covenant cut-out, a fetching grid of landscapes representing remnants of native bush on private land in Taranaki (where Waugh grew up). The significance is that these are covenanted by the QEII National Trust Act, 1977 and cannot be touched by the landowners. Waugh Photoshops out the patch of bush and replaces it with a field of one of the twenty-four colours of the GretagMacbeth ColourChecker chart used by photographers to calibrate natural surfaces. Waugh simultaneously highlights them and their artificiality, and perhaps there is just a hint of the Warhol pop serigraph there as well.
The third group consists of four images from Waugh’s recent Drop-Shadow series. The colours are again drawn from ColourChecker, and the trompe-l’œil - reminiscent of a “how to” exercise in computer manipulation - are an entirely digital artefact. The result is complex and subtle.
Holly Best’s Enigmatic photographs are informal diptychs combining a flâneurial (and somewhat metaphysical) diary of post-quake Christchurch with written texts (self-critical notes about what’s wrong with the image), recalling John Baldessari’s 1969 series Wrong (a self-conscious breaking of the rules) and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document. The viewer seems invited to speculate, chicken and egg fashion, as to whether the texts or the photographic image came first. Do the texts ekphrastically describe the image or does the image illustrate the text? Therein lies the frisson. This leads us into some interesting philosophical territory after J. L. Austin as to whether the texts are illocution or perlocution, felicitous or not.
Andrew Beck seeks to reinvent the Bauhaus photograms (bypassing the camera entirely) in imitation of László Moholy-Nagy, and even surpassing them with the added richness and depth of luminously fluorescent enamel paint and clever assimilation of his allotted gallery corner by only included a few works, scooping into the room with a wall drawing. Just as Moholy-Nagy wanted to get us away from pictorialism by enchanting us with the abstract, photographic mechanics, and objectness, Beck clearly understands how to work a room. Obviously the haecceity of process and duration, the literalness of photo-graphy, drawing with light, are all there, but it’s the actual retinal presence that makes them so arresting, especially in an age saturated with consciously and/or algorithmically mediated images à la Baudrillard and poor Walter Benjamin.
At first glance Solomon Mortimer might merely seem to be recycling a kind of Cindy Sherman-esque self-portrait theatre of subjective personae, but his work coheres together splendidly. While it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether he is indulging in gentle homage or ruthless parody, his invocation of photographers from Herb Ritts to Yvonne Todd is pitch perfect. While he might not be saying anything terribly new (and he doesn’t need to), he says it with considerable virtuosity and confidence, and in the era of the selfie this gives them a kind of ironic urgency.
The shelf of photobooks offers another side to Mortimer’s practice; his deeply affecting and atmospheric documentary photography, which in their way are still just as subjective and ambiguous.
I’m not convinced that the strategies on display really are all that recent in most cases, and I was a tad surprised Tim Veling’s work wasn’t included - born in 1980 he certainly squeaks in, and were it me I might have included Paul McLachlan, Edith Amituanai and others, but acknowledging the spatial limits, all up, it’s a useful and pleasant sampler or a diverse group of artists going places.
Andrew Paul Wood