Category Archives: Exhibitions

Wolfgang Tillmans at the Tate Modern

I attended the study visit on Saturday, which was led by Jayne Taylor, the tutor who regularly attends the Thames Valley Forum meetings. It was a popular visit, with a large group of students, mostly somewhere in the middle of their course. During the exhibition and the subsequent discussion, I wrote copious notes, but a couple of days later, I am still trying to work out how to interpret Tillman’s work. The best way I can think of to describe how his work appears to me is as one of those neural network images, with thousands of strands joining at random nodes, like the one below.

neuron-network-in-the-human-brain-computer-artwork-E7TP8AI have read the suggested reviews of the work, and watched some of the YouTube clips, but the explanation that accords with my own thoughts best is the post by fellow student, Kate, linked here.

Tillmans says that he sees linkages everywhere between seemingly unrelated subjects. The exhibition is set out in a series of 14 rooms, each with a general theme, and some of these are more easy to comprehend than others. He photographs everything from the mundane to the very exotic, and the print size varies from tiny 6×4″ ones to room length. They are all presented together in what appears to be a chaotic manner, but in reality Tillmans has put considerable thought into their placing and colocation with each other. One of the videos shows that he is a big fan of scale models and sets his exhibitions out with absolute precision, according to a system which is opaque to all but himself.

He says his aim is to look at everything, new or familiar, with a fresh eye – not particularly unusual in its own right, but the subjects that attract him tend to be different from other people – weeds, excess, decay, transition. These are mixed with his clear activist ideals into jumbles of loosely related images and a lot of papers and books as well. Subjects that interest him include different understandings of “truth” and the backfire effect, whereby we categorise any proof that does not accord with our understanding of a subject as ill-informed and wrong; fake news as it were.

I could go on for several more paragraphs about the different media he works in, including video, music and sculpture, but the exhibition is so vast and complex that it is impossible on a single visit to appreciate everything fully. I therefore want to mention two aspects that struck me particularly as I moved around the rooms. Firstly, Tillmans homosexuality is referenced throughout, and I was very touched at the affectionate and tender way he portrays his friends and lovers. A host of images feature them, either in portrait form, or as snippets of their bodies which caught his attention, such as the nape of a neck, or a sliver of skin between jeans and t-shirt.

The second area that attracted me was his experiments with the process of making photographs. Not so much the folder single colour prints, but the large scale images he has drawn from dirty printers and his use of non-standard print processes which look at colour grading. These include several images taken from the windows of planes (a subject very close to my own heart), and which produced beautiful modernist abstracts.

Finally, and just for fun, I took a series of several photos in his installation Instrument 2015, where he juxtaposes two video loops, one of himself from behind, dressed only in underpants and dancing while facing the wall, and other which might just be another version of the same, but which is really his shadow on the wall at a totally separate place and time. These rather mundane but mesmerising loops are accompanied by a weird electronic sound, which is apparently synthesised from the noise his feet made while he was filming. The total effect is bizarrely addictive, and the point he is making is that we want the two films to be of the same thing, even when they are not. In any case, my high speed shots of what I was seeing revealed bizarre coloration changes, which I enjoyed making. Jayne said it was something to do with my camera’s rendering of the work.  So here, below, I have shown what the eye saw, along with a few of my camera’s interpretations of the same.

 

Finally, it needs to be reiterated that this exhibition cannot possibly be fully appreciated in one viewing. There is just too much to take in, and Tillman’s thinking is too opaque. It is abundantly clear that he is an excellent photographer and that it all means something, but divining what that meaning might be is a substantial undertaking. As Jayne, said during our discussion after the show, “There’s only room in art photography for one Wolfgang Tillmans.”

Made You Look exhibition, Photographers’ Gallery

Yesterday I visited two exhibitions with fellow student Lynda Kuit, who was visiting from Canada. We started with the Made You Look exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, and then moved on to An Ideal for Living at Beetles & Huxley. This post is mostly concerned with the former.

I will say right away that I struggled with the Made You Look exhibition. There is clearly a significant background text about how black men are defined by white society and how they choose to respond to the white gaze and I felt my lack of knowledge about this hampered my ability to understand the images. The books section of the exhibition included several tomes on the subject of black dandyism, which I felt might be required reading before one could make a sensible judgement of some of the images. In a nutshell though, it seems that a section of the black male population uses extreme fashion as a way of making themselves visible on the world stage, and that “dandyism deliberately flouts conventional notions of class, taste, gender and sexuality” as a means of rebelling against their perceived cultural status. (Eshun, 2016)

However, a variety of photographers from across the world were represented, and the ones that stood out for me were as follows. Colin Jones’ 1970s series The Black House, on young men who lived at a London hostel for people who struggled with abuse and alienation from society was one. So very, very different from my own upbringing at the same age. Interestingly, Jones also had images on show in the Beetles & Huxley show, which I will come to later.

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I saw the Dandy Lion Project several weeks later at the Brighton Biennale, which included some of the same photographers, and felt that it was much more explanatory, although, admittedly, it did feature many more works which helped.

Finishing this post a couple of months later, I can honestly say that I can’t recall much at all about the Beetles & Huxley exhibition, except that it seemed much more accessible than this one. This is interesting, as perhaps it showed that it is the work which falls outside one’s comfort range that stays with you, not what is familiar and easily understood. Something to think about for the future.

Exhibitions in the Blue Mountains, Australia

I have been off-radar over the last month on a road trip through the heartland of Australia. There will probably be other blog posts about my experiences but I will start with reviews of two exhibitions I saw while on a day trip to the Blue Mountains. My first stop (in poor weather) was to the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in Katoomba, where I serendipitously stopped to escape the rain and saw a series by Australian photographer Nicole Welch called Wildēornes Land, while I waited for the weather to clear up. A link to the exhibition is here.

The show was surprisingly modernistic for a tiny town with an old -fashioned high street and the exhibition space is wonderfully large and open. Like most places in Australia, there is just more space, which allows for museums and galleries to give plenty of room for their subjects to breathe.

Welch’s multimedia show/installation uses images, sculpture, sound and film to investigate the Blue Mountains wilderness from a historical, cultural and ecological viewpoint. The exhibition draws upon archival records that illuminate early European’s romantic notions of Australian wilderness juxtaposed with contemporary ideas and concerns that reflect the inherent loss and uncertainty we now face for our natural environment. (BMCS website)

Particularly striking was her use of a Victorian Chantilly lace mourning shawl in locations of historical significance, which references the gap between past and present. Alongside this were enormous video screens where one could see one’s shadow imprinted on the work, as if the viewer was part of the scene itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, and especially the shawl images, which were delicate, evocative and beautiful, yet filled with meaning and sadness for a way of life that is disappearing.

After leaving this exhibition when the rain stopped, I walked the mile or so to the Scenic World Park, which billed itself as an exploration through a temperate rain forest via the steepest railway n the world. The park is more attractive than all the modern hurly burly of concession stands and gift shops at the top indicates, and I enjoyed a walk through the forest on an elevated boardwalk. A current addition to this is a fabulous sculpture trail, using various media from string to items of rubbish. Here are a few of my images from it. The string work was the most successful, I thought, although the crazy installations of garish pictures will stick in my mind for a long time. (Apologies for the gloomy quality of the images, but they were all taken in fairly low light because of the heavy tree canopy. Also, there was no information leaflet for the trail, as far as I could see, so unfortunately I cannot reference the artists).

Both of these exhibitions used objects in the landscape to make their point and this is an area I would like to explore further, later in my degree.

 

 

Something a bit different

Yesterday, another OCA student and I attended an exhibition in Marlborough; not photography, for a change. Jane Corbett is a multi-media artist and sometime milliner and works in a variety of materials ranging from felt through to concrete. Her inspirations come from nature, in particular lichens, seedheads and sea animals and vegetables and one can easily imagine how it crosses over into millinary. Many of the works use thread and pins and there is a strong focus on spheres and circles.

Jane was at the gallery and Kate and I had a chat with her about how she makes her work. She is a great fan of the circle and the square, which featured throughout the exhibit. I have posted a few examples of what we saw below, followed by a shot of her inspiration wall, of which I was very jealous.

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It’s been a while since I visited any non-photography exhibitions and I found it very refreshing. Two elements  of her work particularly interested me. One is her use of natural materials and how plants and lichens inspire it, and the other is a feature of the exhibition settings itself. I was very taken with the acrylic cubes in which the exhibits were displayed. Many of them were spherical and thus difficult to place securely on the surfaces, and the cubes both contained them for safety and isolates them. As I was taking photographs of them, I was fascinated by the reflections they produced and the extra dimension the added to the work. Since then I have been thinking about how I could incorporate this idea into my current assignment, which now has a focus on reflections. More on this in another post)

Many thanks are due to Jane for allowing us to photograph her work. It was a most enjoyable afternoon. Her work can be seen on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/janecorbett/, and her use of split images is also of interest.

One day, three exhibitions

Yesterday, I met up with five other OCA students in London. Our plan was to see the Taylor Wessing Portrait prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and then to pop up the road to Beetles & Huxley, which has a show of Joel Sternfeld prints on at present. I then parted ways with the others, except for Peter, and went south to The Radical Eye at the Tate Modern. It was a great day, finishing off with half an hour listening to Choral Evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2017

This was the only exhibition at which I took notes, and photography was not allowed, so I have no images of my own. First prize went to a very plain image of a South African schoolboy in uniform against a blank white background by Claudio Rasano, and was part of a series of the same. It is a classic typological study of young people displaying their differences, while all wearing the same clothes, and has something of the “school photo” about it. While striking, I couldn’t really see why it had taken 1st Prize over some of the other works. For me, the second prize was much more interesting – a tintype of an American surfer and his girlfriend by Joni Sternbach. However, I can see that its small size and rather dark, monochrome nature makes it less of a show-stopper than the Rasano.

Thinking about the prints in the exhibition as a whole, they seemed to mostly feature the very young and the very old, the latter usually in a state of undress. There were a mixture of direct gazes and averted, but more of the latter. And the great majority were standard prints. Only a couple used alternative processes, which seems fewer than in recent years.

The prints that stood out for me were:

  • Judy Gelles Be Murdered – the back view of a South African schoolgirl, worrying that because her father is a policeman she might get murdered, and the only one with text on the image
  • Charlie Clift Nigel Farage Smoking a Cigar – an ebullient study of Farage, showing all of his braggado and energy
  • Paul Stuart John Harrison -38652 days old – sadly this was not very well lit on the exhibition space, and the catalogue version was much better, displaying a man of over 100 who still seems to be very much alive
  • Andy Lo Pò Simon Callow – stunning , almost painterly study of the actor
  • Phil Sharp John McCrea – this struck me as something I could try with my son. Sharp does headshots for actors, but as if they were in a performance rather than just straight.
  • Matt Hamon’s two prints from the series The Gleaners, which was probably the work that was most interesting to me, as it showed a way of life which is very different from our expectations of life in the USA.

Oh, and there is hope for us all yet. One image on show was of a small child eating soup at a table by Cécile Birt, a photographer who has never entered anything into an exhibition before!

Joel Sternfeld

Beetles & Huxley (bless ’em) allows photography in its gallery, so I was able to take quite a few photographs of the exhibition, which was of images from his American Prospects series. However, the link above shows most of them so I won’t add them all here. Readers of Assignment 2 of my blog will know that I am a big fan of Sternfeld and his deadpan images of the minutiae of American life. These were an inspiring selection and included his famous fireman looking at pumpkins image McLean, Virginia. It is interesting to see his work en masse, as the great range of tones and colours is very noticeable, as is the slight cast, which places the work firmly in the pre-digital age. Strangely, no copies of his book were available either here or at the nearby Waterstones, despite it having been reprinted in 2012. However, there were copies of The High Line for sale, and also a recent work, On The Site, Landscape I’m Memorium, an exercise in “late photography” which I must review in more detail elsewhere.

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The Radical Eye

I hadn’t particularly expected to like this exhibition, modernism not being my favourite period in photography, but it was quite fabulous. Original prints of some of the most famous black and white photographs in the world, alongside some I was less familiar with. There is a lot to see, and the majority of the prints were small, and even tiny, so one had to get right up close to view them properly. It isn’t the type of exhibition one can go to when it is busy as it would not be possible to appreciate a lot of the work in a crowd. All the framing was different, perhaps to reference the great number of photographers on show, and somehow the curators managed to give enough weight through the framing to images that might be as tiny as 3×2 cm in a huge exhibition space. Many of the images had multiple mounts of different thicknesses to give them sufficient gravitas. I was reminded of the miniatures room at the V & A.

The subject of the show was Modernism (1920s – 1950s) and the images ranged from portraits, through abstract work to studies of the nude. Each one was more exquisite than the last. It was not possible to take any photographs in the exhibition, but some of the images that stood out for me were:-

  • Irving Penn’s portraits of people crammed into a corner of his studio, including this one of Gypsy Rose Lee
  • gypsy-rose-lee-penn

    Gypsy Rose Lee, by Irving Penn.

  • the collection of Farm Administration portraits by various people, including “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange
  • the variety of multiple exposures and collage work, especially Harry Callahan’s Detroit. (shown below)
  • eleanordetroit-by-harry-callahan

    Eleanor, Detroit, by Harry Callahan

  •  I must go back and have another look at Callahan’s work.
  • Andre Kertesz’s Underwater swimmer, which was described in CNN’s review of the exhibition as:

a seminal purchase barely the size of a couple of thumbprints: a silver gelatin print of an underwater swimmer from the original 1917 contact sheet by the Hungarian master Andre Kertesz. You need a magnifying glass to appreciate its quality. From http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/11/arts/elton-john-tate-modern-radical-eye-photography/

Overall, it was magnificent, and I might have to go back for another look.

Brighton Biennale – Part 1

I am hoping that last weekend’s trip to Brighton is going to bring me out of my creative funk, and start me moving forward again. It should do, as there was so much to see, and such good interaction with other students. 38 student and four OCA tutors met up for a weekend of exhibitions and opinion sharing, and I met old friends again, and made some new ones too.

The theme of the Biennale this year was Beyond the Bias – Reshaping the Image. It purported to

focus on identity and understanding our personal and projected image as influenced by the pervasive genre of fashion and style photography. …. Identity and representation are explored in relation to the wider context of mass-representation; where self-image and attitude are often co-opted. (bpb16 catalogue, p. 1)

It is worth keeping that in mind, because many of the exhibitions appeared to have little to do with fashion, although to be fair, there were quite a number I did not see. The weekend began on Saturday morning at the Reimagine exhibit at the University of Brighton Galleries. This was one of the non-style based series, which took the work of two photographers working on the same idea and putting them side by side. It was not entirely clear what the collaborative idea was, but Bharat Sikka (from India) and Olivia Arthur (from the UK) worked together to explore the public and private presentation of self-image in relation to the body, gender, sexuality and fantasy. I suspect the Arthur and Sikka had agreed to visit each other’s community, but there were many more images of scenes from the UK than of India. I had the impression that Arthur got fed up with trying to photograph the Indian half of the project and reverted to the UK to complete the required number of images. Both photographers worked on similar large format cameras, but Arthur’s work was mostly in black and white, while Sikka’s work was colour.

Our tutor, Jesse, asked us to consider how the size, proportions and layout of the exhibition affected our understanding, and suggested that we think about three issues:

  • how does photography enforce or question stereotypes?
  • what effect does the collaboration’s similarities and differences have on our understanding?
  • does the overall exhibit adjust our perspective on the subject?

At first viewing, I preferred Sikka’s colour images. They had an intimate honesty and understanding that seemed absent from Arthur’s work. Arthur’s work seemed very observational and Outside, and seemed to have more of a feel of an assignment rather than a subject close to the photographer’s heart. The images came in a mixture of sizes and presentations, which may have been deliberate to echo the assortment of different ideas that the exhibit was exploring.

It was not until the end that that any explanation was given for the images we saw. A small dark booth was showing a rolling video of quotes, which apparently accompanied some of the images, but which were not specifically tied to any individual picture.  I didn’t have time to watch this in the group session, but came back later and sat through all of it. It was most enlightening, and explained that the images were all about individuality in gender, sexuality and its expression within a community which is quite often boxed under the LGBT label. Going back through the exhibit with that in mind gave a different reading of it – there was much more of a sense of individual decision-making about where the sitters stood on the subject of gender and sexuality, and the myriad of ways there are of expressing this, ranging from the skinhead in a tutu to others where there was no external clues at all. One of the images from the show, of a fluffy unicorn’s head stuck to a wall like a trophy seemed to sum up the exhibition to me – it was about people creating a world where one could be anything one wanted to be, and just because a unicorn does not normally exist, there is no reason why one cannot make it exist if one feels strongly enough about it.

Comparing it to the next exhibit we saw, the Dandy Lion Project, the subjects of Reimagine were trying not to be defined by labels, whereas for the people in the Dandy Lion project, the label and being part of a specific group was an important part of their personae.

William Eggleston and the snapshot aesthetic

A couple of days ago, I attended an OCA study visit at the National portrait Gallery, to see William Eggleston’s Portraits, along with about a dozen other students. It was timely, in view of my current Assignment 2 researches on Walker Evans, another photographer working at the same time in a similar style. A separate post on Evans is still in gestation, but will be published very soon.

Eggleston is a self-taught photographer, who began work around 1960. There is a fair representation of his early work, but for me the interesting images were the later colour ones. The exhibit includes 100 images, ranging from  photobooth size right up to A1+. The exhibition area was perhaps a little cramped and photography was no allowed, so I have no images of the space.

Eggleston was one of the first photographers to bring colour images into the mainstream of art photography. John Szarkowski’s promotion of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in the 1970s brought it to general attention, although much of the initial reception of his work was negative, with reviewers labelling it as banal and ordinary. However, they had failed to understand Eggleston’s concept of photographing the everyday in a democratic way, and not giving more importance to any particular element of what he saw. He says there are no pretensions towards photo-journalism; he just photographs what he sees, but has a knack of capturing composition, subject and colour that makes the ordinary interesting. Like Evans, he aims to photograph “the gaps in between everything else”.

Eggleston’s portraits are not his most famous works. Many of the images on show were taken unawares, and he is described as having a delicate, gently touch which captures something we can all relate to. I was particularly struck by the depth and tonality of the colours in the images, and his use of colour accents, particularly red and blue. Eggleston was influenced by abstract expressionism and this shows in his work. The colours themselves are very rooted in the fashions of the time of the images, and again, like Evans, one can date the images by the colour palettes he used.

I found the YouTube video below fascinating in the way it shows how Eggleston works. His images are rooted in the “Snapshot Aesthetic” (see below) and it is very clear that he embraces this idea totally. He is shown pottering round a nondescript area of his home town, literally taking single, fast snaps of whatever catches his eye. There is no sense of preparation about his method – he just responds to what he sees. “He discovers his subject within the myriad of possibilities.” As a result, the focus is often variable, and frequently emphasises odd parts of the image, but that is part of the charm of the work. At the same time, many of his works have an odd sense of foreboding and unreality, and there is often a fleeting impression of a narrative which the viewer cannot quite grasp.

Images that particularly struck me were the girl in the back of the car, for its strange composition, which forces the eye in towards the centre of the image, and the old lady on the swing seat, largely because of the sheer ugliness of the clashing colours. The lady seems to be lost within them all, but there is a strong sense of place and personality about it.

The Snapshot Aesthetic

This also appeared in the 1960s and was popular until the 1980s among art photographers. The linked article here by a student in New Zealand gives a good explanation. The fundamental basis for the aesthetic is that snapshots, with their unposed, casual feel have a sense of authentically representing the world which is absent from more formal photography. It harks back to the idea of photography being the only truthful art, capturing a moment of reality that has indisputably occurred, and something that has now been shown to be false.

Overall, the study day was interesting and it was good to meet some new students. I left after lunch and headed off to the Imperial War Museum to see Secret War and Edmund Clark’s War on Terror exhibitions. The latter was a multimedia work looking at the lives of some of the inmates who were incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, and was very interesting.

References

http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/q-and-a-william-eggleston/

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/william-eggleston-portraits-national-portrait-gallery-review-portraits-stay-with-you-long-after-you-a7158266.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/luxury/art/william-eggleston-portraits-at-national-portrait-gallery-review/

http://www.egglestontrust.com/guide_intro.html

Lynn Berger, “Snapshots, or: Visual Culture’s Clichés,” Photographies 4, no. 2 (2011): 175-190

http://ivc.lib.rochester.edu/snapshot-aesthetics-and-the-strategic-imagination/