Tis the season of the group show, so it is refreshing when a gallery attempts to use this format to create a dynamic exhibition instead of a mere’ greatest hits’ of represented artists.
There is sound commercial imperative for the latter approach, but, as is the case with the excellent ‘Uncommon Ground’ at Flowers East, the former offers opportunities for discovering new connections in contemporary photography. Here, curator Chris Littlewood, seeks to explore the desire to document human interventions in the landscape, whether they be man-made (as in the result of economic and industrial forces) or artist-made (sculptural or performance based). Such a conceptualisation allows for the mixing of both represented heavyweights like Edward Burtynsky or Nadav Kander with some more emerging or mid-career talent. It’s a great idea, and though some of the included work does stretch the concept, both in terms of relevance and quality, it is exciting to see an ambitious show mounted that seeks to do more than sell, but rather explore a fertile borderland between Straight/Pictorial photography and Fine Art.
Uncommon Ground is hung over two floors, including the newly converted first floor. Out of many artists on show, David Spero’s work is the first to catch the eye. These are pictures of domestic interiors and dance/gym halls in which the artist has inserted coloured balls, sometimes linked to one another by coloured string, in such a way as to encourage the reading of D.IY constellations under which the banal subsequently assumes a magical air. Within Spero’s series there is also the sense that the photographer is playfully sketching out the inner working of composition itself, the invisible web that can tie a picture together.
Equally impressive is the poetic exploration of colour in John Maclean’s work. By using snow as a naturally occurring canvas, the artist’s filling of symbol- shaped crevices with coloured ink in one triptych, calls into question the notion of the photograph as documentation. Are these abstractions or miniature pieces of Land Art? These could be the capturing (trapping perhaps) of a found instance, or creative works in which nature is a tool. The confusion of scale challenges the viewer to consider the representation of the monumental in nature, be it again man or artist made, whilst the saturated primary colours refer to a whimsical notion of the artistic. These interventions may be minor, but by virtue of being made into pictures, they become significant expressions of human presence, pre-meditated traces of a kind. Other images in the series seem to be seeking the ‘meta’ language of nature through abstractions that suggest meaning but no concrete reading.
Aaron Schuman’s almost topographical documentation of Redwood trees in the contemporary British landscape is an incisive examination of the mythical potency of a natural symbol. Planted in the 19th century by British explorers keen to introduce exotic vegetation on these isles, they have now grown huge, monoliths towering over the essentially mild and meek British countryside. They are incongruities, outcasts, like the brash American character in a BBC sitcom, yet they somehow represent a more virile sense of the natural, highlighting British modesty, inadequacy even. Well-trod tropes for sure, yet somehow more piercing here, in the context of this essentially pointless human intervention. By photographing in muted black and white, Schuman emphasises the monotony of the environment in which these great, epic trees clearly do not belong.
Peter Ainsworth’s diptychs, in which the artist has masked out a segment of a canal bank, then etched the marked portion, present photograph and etching side by side. The etched images recall Brassai’s photos of wall markings and are altogether modernist in feel. The information provided by the images with which they are juxtaposed allows for the sense of a frame, be it mechanical or material, but in cropping a seemingly random portion of homogeneous subject matter, he foregrounds the photographic process through the use of non-camera techniques. As interventions, these, though seemingly random, are exactly the kind that most image-makers make every day, facilitated by technology.
There are many more works on display in the show and it is well worth a visit if you can brave the imminent throngs. Also on show this month, in what will be an even busier locale, are two masters on Carlos Place: Diane Arbus at Timothy Taylor and Irving Penn at Hamiltons.
The Arbus show, titled ‘Affiinities’, is a selection of the artist’s work, spanning her career, including several photographs never before exhibited in the UK. There isn’t much one can say about Arbus, the superlatives having all been over-used by now, but one does wonder to what extent she might be a photographer’s photographer. What strikes one most about the work, which is of course wondrous, isn’t the affinities she finds amongst her subjects, but her affinity with her subjects. I’m not the first to say that an Arbus portrait is a portrait of Arbus herself, but more than that these images capture a trust only she seemed able to elicit. These are kinship, empathy and painful understanding. Catch it while you can!
Hamiltons has assembled the entirety of Penn’s seminal ‘Cigarettes’ series, which as legend has it, so impressed MoMa photography curator John Szarkowki when he first saw them in Penn’s studio, that they were exhibited three weeks later at said prestigious institution. All original 26 images are on display and it is a massively impressive body of work. Butts found on street, artfully composed and shot in black and white, these are beautifully printed meditations on decay in the age of branding. There may not be much more than to them than that, and one might wonder as to whether one would get away with such work nowadays, but like Warhol and the Empire State Building, Penn got there first.
If the Olympics don’t make you flee, run, sprint, jump and pole-vault over to these shows.
Words/ Photos: Kerim Aytac © ArtLyst 2012