Modernism and Modernisation
Roger Palmer: Shanty - Aspex, Portsmouth 14th July - 9th September 2007
Review by David Evans
Black and white landscape photographs by Roger Palmer were included in Three Perspectives on Photography (Hayward Gallery, London, 1979), a significant exhibition because it marked the acknowledgement by the Arts Council of Great Britain of the importance of photography in contemporary art. Three perspectives required three curators, namely Paul Hill, Angela Kelly and John Tagg. Tagg and Kelly presented work informed by Socialism and Feminism, respectively, and Hills perspective emerged in the catalogue essay 'Photographic Truth, Metaphor and Individual Expression'. There, he dismissed 'propagandists' (an obvious swipe at those chosen by Kelly and Tagg) and celebrated individual expression, an introspective approach or 'art for the artist's sake' (as represented by, amongst others, Roger Palmer). In general, Hill's distinction between art and propaganda was crude. More specifically, it was, and remains, unhelpful for assessing a figure like Palmer whose subtle art has always involved complex reflections on place and time.
Palmer likes language. Indeed, in the mid-eighties, Ian Jeffrey proposed that his main theme was the relationship between the transient visual world represented in the photographs and the permanent reality of the captions. Yet captions, however well chosen, are often disregarded, especially in fine art contexts. Therefore, it wasn't too surprising when Palmer started to devise new ways of foregrounding words. The change was evident in an exhibition from the mid-nineties called Remarks on Colour (Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno, 1995). There were still black and white photographs, but now complemented by words painted on the floor and on canvases, embroidered on linen, or treated as an important element within photographs. More recently, he has also started experimenting with neon signs and words displayed on an LED screen, for instance in his solo show International Waters (AVA Gallery, Cape Town, 2000).
Palmer also likes found objects and images. Decrepit boats, posters, amateur watercolour paintings and a scale model of an ocean liner have all been used. He is also keen on large scale wall works copied in various ways from diverse source material ranging from an Egyptian postage stamp to a nineteenth century shipping poster. In addition, he is acutely aware of where he exhibits, treating buildings and their locations as found elements that can generate further meanings. A stunning example is his second version of International Waters, held in Southampton in 2001. Dealing with the Union-Castle shipping company, it was appropriately installed in the companys imposing, former headquarters.
Shanty is comprised of nine works in five media: a neon text piece, a wall drawing, an architectural model, a 'film', and five silver gelatine prints. His working methods as a photographer haven't changed much since the 70s when he contributed to Three Perspectives. He still uses a hand held SLR camera loaded with black and white roll film, and he still does his own printing (however, he is very much aware that a form of image making that was considered subversive by artists in the seventies is now widely assessed via digital norms and treated as almost antiquarian.) Other items, like the neon signs and the model, are made by professionals following his instructions. It is also significant that elements such as the neon signs and the large wall painting have been exhibited elsewhere, but are here modified and combined with other elements to create a fresh articulation. In numerous ways, then, Palmer deliberately privileges the mechanical and the anonymous, and his own presence is discrete.
In the first instance, the gallery visitor is confronted by two neon signs on a specially constructed white wall strategically located in the centre of the gallery. (The signs are curved to complement the shape of two large doors either side of the wall, a good example of Palmer's meticulous attention to detail and sensitivity to a location.) One sign reads 'pier & ocean' and the other, 'peninsula and oriental'. That is, two P&Os. The most obvious one refers to the British shipping company that specialised in long distance voyages to the Iberian Peninsula and the 'Orient'. The less obvious sign refers to the series of paintings by Mondrian, created at the start of the First World War and representing a key moment in the breakthrough to abstraction. Together, the two signs set up a dialogue between modernism and modernisation, two related processes that both have, or did have, international ambitions.
The two signs evoke land and sea and this theme links the five photographs, taken in various locations around the world. But Palmer's 'monochromes', to use his term, have a supplementary role in this exhibition: the key works are found on the other side of the wall with the neon signs. Here, the artist introduces a local dimension with two works devoted to a nearby houseboat made from the hull of a Second World War military landing craft. On the wall a small screen shows a 15 second slow dissolve of the houseboat at high and low tide. Close by, in a neat conceit, is a scale model of the DIY dwelling, made by a model maker who usually works for professional architects. Palmer treats this houseboat as emblematic of shanties all over the world. They might not seem much compared with ocean liners, he seems to be saying, but they are also testimony to human inventiveness, and are another authentic product of modernisation.
The location of Shanty is important. Since December 2006, Aspex Gallery has been in the south wing of the converted Vulcan Building, originally a naval storehouse in the nineteenth century, used for various purposes in the early twentieth century, but closed since 1955. The Vulcan Building is in the Gunswharf Quays area that was in decline for decades as Portsmouth's importance as a naval base diminished. Now the area has been re-developed, with shops, luxury apartments and leisure facilities, including an art gallery. Within this context Shanty becomes an antidote to historical amnesia.