'Still Life' by Karl Grimes was at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, March, 1998
Review by James Armstrong
n this particular moment of contemporary visual history there exists a calculated preoccupation with authentic biology. The presentation of specimens or the invention of genetic metaphors invites us to contemplate nature and its denominator; mortality, in a somehow new or heightened manner. Shock, sensation, horror or any number of cinematic headings classify these rarefied ventures into the super-real theatre of the millennium mind. Karl Grimes' Still Life at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin is a documentation of malformations (natal abnormalities) from the turn of the century. Collections of this sort have existed primarily for scientific resource in the medical community. The only place where they could be bottled, displayed, and contemplated without the hysteria or side show exploitation that precipitates glimpses of nature's most unnatural matrix. The child:bastion of innocence, heterosexuality's immaculate claim to god-like normality, the hope of all that is perfect and coming. Here, a graphic variation on a genetic theme.
Recent science has reduced the occurrence of these astounding aberrations in almost all technological societies. Historically these repeated manifestations worldwide and cross culturally have given us a lexicon of self loathing. Mothers dying at childbirth, punishments from God, inauspicious omens and journeys through the dark to a tent where we can see what we have never seen the likes of before. How does one look into this mirror? Is pictorial beauty relevant?
The honesty an artist uses to validate a chosen contextual image and how he brings his audience into that proposed realm of experience is pivotal in our acceptance of symbols in the late twentieth century. What are we looking at? Why are we looking at it? How do we reinterpret and utilise that which we have already seen or know already exists? Resentment and manipulation; are some things best left unseen? Grimes stares into a collection of hidden art works a hundred years after the fact, another turn of a century, post Barnum and Bailey, post Damien Hirst and still no one can look.
These beings have outlived their makers. Their re-emergence into the present era is fraught with many metaphors; some scientific, some ethical. They bring with them universally archaic paradigms. Bottles with labels, each with a Latin surname, conditions of the spirit, cellular articulations, fleshy ghosts; these images are specimen smart and time wise.
Emotional response is at the heart of artistic creation and observation. In the glow of an arsenal of conceptual footlights, what we feel if the visual pun works, makes for a good show. Animals hang suspended or are enshrined in department store display cases, post modernistic taxidermists make statements on the object-specific perfection of nature, prepubescent Siamese mannequins with genital mouths, scatological performance, portraits of homicidal paederasts; all of these abstractions still buffer us from the real. A mutant baby in a bottle alarm. Grimes' photographs confront us with a directness rare in contemporary image making.
His use of colour gives these phantoms a tender life within their glass containers. An amazing photographic eye elevates each image out of the realm of simple scientific documentation into a sometimes macabre but lyric gesturing. Laboratory equals gallery. These works are powerful, often without apology; an observation of natures other side.
Still Life was first exhibited as part of Fotofeis 97 at the Maclaurin Gallery, Ayr, Scotland. Public reaction was immediate and resulted in radio and television coverage. Shut down because of the controversy surrounding the images, it reopened following the intervention of curator Mike Bailey and the Scottish Arts Council.
Grimes has spent the last few years working and exhibiting in New York City. Science and medicine figure prominently in his photographs. Coloured grids like advertisements for enigmatic Petri dishes , dolls' heads washed up on eastern Irish shores from Britain, cotton swabs with the blood of dying friends, pharmaceuticals and medical candy, natural history simulacrum and now Still Life each distinct, stylistically separate and in continuum.