Eva Bartussek, Kate Peters, Christina Bryant, Pamela So, Nigel Grimmer, Dawn Woolley, Nicholas Cobb and Tessa Bunney
Curated by Matthew Shaul
The major curatorial projects I have developed over the past five or so years have been almost exclusively ‘photographically’ led and, although I remain fascinated and primarily motivated by projects which are principally photographic, I am increasingly disinclined to describe myself solely as a photography curator. The Photographers’ Gallery, London, in its recent marketing material describes photography as ‘the most accessible medium in the world’ and it is hard to argue with the popular immediacy of historical documentary exhibitions like Andre Kertesz’s On Reading (Photographers’ Gallery, 2009). The more I have come to know and understand the work of contemporary photographers, however, the more I struggle with the definition of ‘fine art photography’.
I am curious about the question of when photography becomes ‘art’ - or when a photographer becomes an artist using photography - and have come to recognise the fascinating currency of ideas which develops when fine art and photographic practices and concerns intertwine and overlay. In particular I have recently become very interested in portraiture, in photography’s increasingly stimulating engagement with architecture, and the fascinating debates, texts and discourses around contemporary urbanism and ‘psycho-geography’.
The eight artists’ work I have chosen to profile from the Axis website all in some way or another share a fascination with the image we project or the spaces we inhabit. In some cases this is manifested in an enquiry into how collectively or individually we adorn and beautify ourselves, or the fascinating intimacies the projection of an avatar or alter-ego into the traditional space of portraiture can offer up. Equally, and for me a growing source of intrigue, is the process whereby some of the artists have documented the traces and impressions we leave on the architecture we encounter in our daily lives.
Eva Bartussek Horse House, 2005
Eva Bartussek Horse House, 2005
Eva Bartussek Horse House, 2005
Eva Bartussek’s ‘Horse House’ (2005) depicts a (once comfortable and elegant) house in a state of domestic meltdown and highlights the camera’s function as a passport or calling card - here giving access to, and engagement with, an exotic reality lurking behind the veneer of middle-class respectability. A home both to people and horses, Bartussek’s series presents tableaux of chaos and degeneration, the result of a process that the uninitiated viewer can only guess at, but which conveys a palpable sense of desperation and psychological dislocation.
Through a long-term engagement with the personal obsessions and the chattels of middle class existence - framed prints (of horses) and floral print wallpaper on the one hand, flaking plaster, mud smeared tile floors and accumulated rubbish on the other, Bartussek creates a landscape populated only by horses. If absence can underline presence, however, she has successfully achieved her intention of creating a ‘portrait’ of the human occupant(s) of the house - who remain tantalisingly out of sight - and the proud, traditional and equine-centred life they lead or led.
Kate Peters Untitled # 12 (Home), 2002
Kate Peters, in her series ‘Home’ (2002), also works with domestic spaces but by contrast her photographs concentrate on environments, which, as she puts it, are ‘in transition’ and devoid of human presence or of almost any of the stuff of life. Framed to emphasise an old newspaper once used as carpet underlay, the different layers and styles of wallpaper, or the un-faded patches on a wall where a picture or mirror once hung, the photographs reveal her fascination with the imprint of past occupation and the layering of impressions that successive generations of house-holders leave on a building.Equally interested in the way these traces of past occupation point to different fashions in interior design, visual obsessions and their changes over years, Peters envisages her photographs as a memento-mori in which an embedded, but anonymous, personal history can be read in the fading fabric of a building.
Kate Peters Untitled, 2008
Kate Peters Untitled, 2008
Christina Bryant Living Space, 2008
Christina Bryant The House, 2008
Similarly concerned with interior spaces, signs of shelter and home, Christina Bryant has developed the intangible medium of the drawn line into a full sensory experience, which combines photography, drawing, sculpture and performance. Bryant’s obsessively-detailed drawings of the internal furniture of domestic experience are immediately alluring, comfortable and familiar. Yet these very same ‘drawings’ simultaneously generate fascinating fluctuations between real and perceived space. Bryant’s masterful command of perspective is developed into three-dimensional space and presented in highly worked sculptural installations. Hence an actual-size representation of a flight of stairs curving away into the middle distance, which appears to be three-dimensional, actually is three-dimensional.
Her recent work and her concern to extend the drawn line into real ‘inhabitable’ space co-opts the sculptural and architectural understandings of both artist and viewer, challenging narrow definitions of ‘drawing’. Developing her practice as performance, Bryant is often to be found at gallery openings ‘imprisoned’ in a translucent muslin ‘tent’ of her own construction. Clothed in an all-over white bodysuit (evoking disturbing ideas of biological hazard) she performatively attempts to map the events of a private view and record them for posterity. The ‘skins’ of tents produced at past events then form part of every new exhibition.
Pamela So Paper cut, 2006
Pamela So’s investigations of collective and individual memory relate closely to her Scottish Chinese heritage. Like other artists in my selection, she too is interested in the impressions that different histories and ethnicities have imprinted on our shared cultural heritage, their impact on the construction of identity, and how these histories go unnoticed as they are experienced on a daily basis.
Using museum collections as a starting point, So interrogates pattern, and the enthralling idea of the transmission of pattern between cultures as a determinant on cultural identity.
Using these historical narratives as a tool to weave British and Chinese histories together, she analyses the formative influences on the development of a shared visual understanding. After detailed research, So works site-specifically and intuitively creating conjunctions of British and Chinese motifs, like the ‘regency’ lamps at the Brighton Pavillion, which she converted into Chinese Lanterns. These works used Chinese-inspired patterns designed by the Crace firm of Royal decorators in 1804, and were shown in the exhibition Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650 -1930 (Brighton Museum and Art Gallery) 2008.
Nigel Grimmer Roadkill Family Album (Mum, Fritton, 2000), 2000 - 2003
Nigel Grimmer Roadkill Family Album (Jayne, Hackney, 2007), 2007
Observing the established conventions of the family snapshot, Nigel Grimmer’s extraordinary and somewhat disturbing series ‘The Roadkill Family Album’ (2007) raises what, for me, are fascinating questions around portraiture. Echoing Pamela So’s interest in pattern, Grimmer’s photography references the portrait, a hugely important part of our culture, which is equally seldom closely analysed. Using iconography which evokes a composite memory of Grimmer’s childhood and the comic or joke shop paraphernalia that fascinated him, he encourages his friends and extended family to adopt the persona of an animal (created with a joke shop mask) and to ‘play dead’ as he photographs them in a variety of holiday locations.
For the artist, the images evoke the memory of birds and other wildlife that he memorised on family holidays as a child. But while he observes the conventions of traditional portraiture he also subverts them: whereas traditional portraiture places individual or collective identity centre stage, Grimmer works to obscure individual identity, ostentatiously and carefully ‘staging’ each image to remove the merest suggestion of spontaneity or the personality of the subject. For me the uncanny and uncomfortable elements in Grimmer’s work recall my confused reaction when I encounter the portrait of an infamous murderer or dictator – there is nothing in these images to celebrate, but morbid curiosity means I can’t look away.
Dawn Woolley Serving Dinner - the dolls house series, 2003
Similarly perhaps, Dawn Woolley’s recent work uses an avatar – her own likeness - to question our relationship with the two-dimensional image and the act of looking and being looked at. As with much of the most interesting self-portraiture, Woolley’s work is a treatise on identity, personal space and relationships that goes far beyond the dynamic between artist and camera. Subverting expected modes of mediation and reception in portraiture, she creates a photographic cut-out copy of herself and, re-photographing it in imagined situations (the ‘Doll’s House’ series, 2003), highlights concerns around exhibitionism, female stereotyping, the processes of objectification and idealisation.
Dawn Woolley Substitute (woodland), 2007
Dawn Woolley Interloper, 2008
In her ‘Substitute’ series (2007) she uses her own likeness – sometimes in overtly sexual situations – and creates an obviously ‘synthetic’ visual dynamic in which a real person will interact with her cut-out image. Woolley’s intention is to force the viewer into the position of voyeur and to question the innate human desire to understand (and consume) the two-dimensional image, mediated through film or photography, as a ‘real’ person in a real situation.
A recent series, ‘Interloper’ (2008) develops the theme of voyeurism and poses searching questions around issues of trust and consent in contemporary photographic portraiture, and the place within these of the salacious curiosity with which media culture is so obsessed. Using her own body again, Wolley sets up a narrative in which she is disturbed, apparently nude, in the privacy of her own bathroom by an intruder armed with a hand-held camera.
Nicholas Cobb The Office Park series no.12, 2009
Nicholas Cobb Office Park series no.22, 2009
Meshing photography, sculpture and model-making, Nicholas Cobb's 'Office Park series' (2009) references the perceptual oscillations between the public and private persona in a very personal way. Another artist creating an imagined environment, Cobb has recreated an office park (at 1:87 scale) in extraordinarily intricate detail. In common with the work of John Timberlake (another Axis artist) whose series ‘Another Country’ alludes to nuclear annihilation through the use of figures and landscape modelled in Plasticene, (and who like Cobb presents his finished work as photographs), there is a disturbing conjunction of corporate slick and underlying malevolence in Cobb’s photography.
Perversely mediated in a way that recalls the innocence of the children’s television of my youth (e.g. Thunderbirds and Camberwick Green), ‘Office Park’ evokes the private terrors that underlie corporate normality, and a sense of alienation and discomfort with the world.
Tessa Bunney Untitled, 2004
Tessa Bunney Untitled, 2006
In closing I want to move briefly to a discussion of Tessa Bunney’s Romanian Travelogue ‘Hand to Mouth’ (2003-4). Funded by Arts Council England and the European Cultural Foundation, Bunney’s ambitious documentary project was an attempt to record Transhumance, the practice of moving livestock between upland and lowland pastures depending on the season in the Carpathian Mountains. Bunney has produced a remarkable document of one of Europe’s last remaining peasant communities and the traditions, landscapes, songs and clothing which are integral to it.
Having survived the Second World War, and the extremes of Ceausescu’s Stalinist regime, Transhumance is finally beginning to unravel in the face of the EU’s unforgiving bureaucracy. With an acute documentary aesthetic, Bunney’s concentration on the minutiae – the gnarled figures and outmoded agricultural practices – evokes the tragedy of this fast-disappearing way of life against the backdrop of an increasingly homogeneous society and culture.
The opportunity to research the Axis website has been hugely enjoyable and, enticingly for me, although most of the artists I have chosen use photography, it would be incorrect to describe them purely as photographers.
In some shape or form the artists I have chosen all share an interest in how we present ourselves to, or experience the world: the tools, icons, fashions and disguises we use (genuinely or falsely) to establish identity and status, most particularly when an implied absence works to confirm a suggested presence. Some are more interested in how we mark, map and claim dominion over the spaces we inhabit, while others seem on some level to reject the world in creating a fantasy landscape to inhabit. Others still have documented a world, which (although it is fast disappearing), seems like fantasy. My interest in these artists individually and collectively resides in what their ‘mapping’ strategies tell us about how we negotiate society and our environment.
Matthew Shaul is Head of Programming at the University of Hertfordshire Galleries, and the curator of numerous high profile UK touring exhibitions, most notably Do Not Refreeze – Photography Behind the Berlin Wall, an encyclopaedic survey of photography in East Germany 1949-1990, which toured England 2007-9.
Artists' CV & artwork pages