London Photography Exhibitions Review May/ June 2012
For once, in the case of the aptly named ‘Out of Focus’, the hodgepodge nature of a Saatchi show seems to work. A survey of contemporary fine art photographic practice, it reflects the nature of a splintered medium. The common theme seems to be that, as ‘straight’ photography slowly dies and the photographic medium is swallowed up by the art world proper, what will be left is artists doing things to either theirs, or other peoples’ images.
On the ground floor, Katy Grannan’s room is particularly powerful; a selection of bleached, sunburnt portraits of eccentric Californians. Other heavies include Broomberg and Chanarin and John Stezaker, with healthy selections of work from several of their projects. David Benjamin Sherry’s subtle tinting of his large format landscapes, into reds and yellows and blues, is wonderfully evocative.
As one ascends, the work gets gradually more experimental. Images are cut up, stained, rolled out on the floor, fragmented, printed on ceramic tiles and folded. Anything and everything, it seems, to challenge the traditional hang of 2d work. Some are successful. Marlo Pascual’s gameplay, for example, is inventive whilst curiously sinister, and Sohei Nishino’s cartographic collages are also excellent. Others just irritate, as with Mariah Robertson’s wildly inconsistent and arbitrary experimentation, much like the vacuous installations of Meredyth Sparks. Not unusually for a Saatchi production, there’s something of the try-hard here, with works desperate to be described as installations, as conceptual, yet who are divorced from any real discourse on the either the nature, or the point, of photography. To simply question presentation isn’t enough.
It’s a nice touch to have the Google Photography Prize on the top floor. it’s an impressive selection young photographers on undergraduate degrees, and provides a refreshing counterpoint to the excesses of the floors below. The scandalously young Colin Avery stands out, and looks to have a very bright future.
If the point is to question the future direction of this medium’s practice, then this approach is only partially successful, ignoring as it does the swathes of image-makers out there still committed to generating innovation through the work itself, rather than through the ability to situate it within a conceptual framework. Having said that, the show claims to do no more that present a field with a multitude of diverging practices.
Catch ‘Unknown Quantities’ at Fishbar Gallery while you can. A new space set up by young Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur and her partner, this little gallery is a delight. What was once a Fish and Chip shop on Dalston Lane has been transformed into a warm and welcoming space. The show collects the work of 4 young photojournalists who have all recently joined Magnum: Peter Van Agtmael, Olivia Arthur, Dominic Nahr and Moises Saman. Arthur’s own ‘Jeddah Diary’ stands out. A long term project documenting the lives of women in Saudi Arabia, it is sensitive and compassionate. Peter Van Agtmael’s lightbox strips in the rear, exploring the lives of U.S soldiers and their families upon their return from the front, are also powerful. The basement features a slide-show in which the remaining two photographers show work on the Arab Spring.
It’s a shame that there aren’t more of Robin Maddock’s images at T.J Boulting gallery. Showing a selection from his recent publication ‘God Forgotten Face’, in which he sought to reclaim the spirit of Plymouth, a town neglected since the navy left, according to Owen Hatherley who wrote the book’s forward. A mixture of street photography and portraiture, it amounts to a form of spiritual documentary tinged with a hard, rugged optimism. The spiritual is hard earnt in this town, but thriving, vital. Maddock’s images recall the work of Henry Bond or Tom Wood, but with a more attuned empathy. There are real moments of beauty here. Maddock’s work takes up the main room in the space, adjoining the less successful ‘Anonymity’ by Jarret Schecter Robin.
I’ve often wondered about the generational divide that must blight the families of Eastern Europe, in the aftermath of Communism. Dana Popa’s delicate images explore this idea amongst Romania’s young, in ‘After the New Man’ at Foto8 Gallery. The portraits, sprinkled with a few shots of overgrown soviet architecture, are accompanied by confessional and occasionally cryptic quotes from their subjects. These communicate a general ambivalence about a past which most would happily forget, but to remember, the responsibility of their country’s narrative compels them. For some, the now, the present, in which the economic realities of the capitalist actuality (which they can claim as theirs, not their parents’), allows ample pretext for denial. The weight of an unwanted history clashes with the banality of an existential present. This is quiet, considered work, but deeply committed.
Edgar Martins is the young master of composition. His work, be it photographing empty airport runways at night, or cold-war built hydraulic power stations, is distinguished by his eye for line and symmetry. This makes his current show at Wapping Project Bankside, ‘This is Not a House’, so mystifying. Martins’s response to the subprime mortgage crisis, and mostly the result of a commission by the New York Times, the photographs ostensibly document abandoned and semi-built housing, or even, in one case, land cleared to be built upon. A fairly straightforward assignment, one would think, but Martins seemed intent on addressing ‘some of the longest-lasting questions around truth and verisimilitude in Photography’, according to the gallery’s press release, by digitally manipulating the images. He got into some hot water for having done so, and accounted for his decision by stating he was trying to create symmetry where there was none and that these manipulations were anyway ‘made at a representational level only’ (his own words) .That’s alright then.
The interiors he documents are dis-comfortingly balanced which, in itself, could have been an interesting comment on real estate aspiration, or even on the nature of truth in Photography, if that must be questioned yet again (please stop!), but they are placed alongside odd still-lives. These are of cloned cable and steel implements, breeze blocks mounted atop one another in a sculptural arrangement or even a door ajar with a chair balanced on its head. The manipulations are so bad that they must be deliberately so, but to what purpose? If it is, as is claimed, to question verisimilitude, it is a bit off to use the broken dreams of nation to do so. Moreover, it makes the series uneven and lacking in focus. It’s not ‘hyperreal’ to lose one’s house methinks.
Words/Photos By Kerim Aytac