Versions & Diversions
Temple Bar Gallery (15th July - 20th August 2011)
Review by Matt Packer
Found photography is now a familiar term that regularly occupies the pages of this magazine and others, while also making frequent appearances in artist statements, gallery texts, and serving as the central subject to many academic essays and publications. In recent years, the turn to found photography has typically emphasised the vernacular and sociographic use-values of photography. Through found photography, the junk store album or the disregarded print, a portal opens into a world of social and cultural transactions once established, but that are now sometimes-bizarrely astray.
Versions and Diversions is an exhibition that explores three artists’ approaches to found photographs, but takes a less-typical path in emphasising formal and compositional treatments; the three artists’ of the exhibition deliberately affecting and pronouncing the materiality of photographs they find – by cutting, recomposing, bleaching, and stitching into their surfaces.
The artists draw upon different forms of photograph: formal portraits (Maurizio Anzeri), family holiday snaps (Mariana Mauricio), and art historical postcards (Ruth Claxton). These are forms of photography with different social and cultural distributions, public and private. Yet, these artists don’t seem to choose their images as a way of rallying a critique around these issues. Sociographics are obscured here, and instead, photography is used as one ingredient in a bigger mix, serving more as a kind of pre-figured raw material that sets forward the stakes for formal abstraction and interaction; versions and diversions.
Anzeri’s work with embroidery applied to portrait photographs manages to be both a cruel appropriation of the original image, and a strangely supportive adaptation. Coloured stitching criss-crosses and obscures the black and white faces of unknown sitters with a precise geometry and pattern; each portrait, a hybrid futuristic figure, ghosted with the figurative traditions of the past. As with artists such as John Stezaker, there is as much collaboration as there is disjuncture between the original photographs and Anzeri’s secondary treatments; an investment in the compositional logic of the image, rather than used as a simple prop for opposition and polemic. In various works, Anzeri’s stitch work follows the shape of the head, elaborates the hair, and organises itself around the eyes of the original portrait.
In fact, the interaction with source images extends to all three artists in the exhibition. In Ruth Claxton’s series of art historical postcards with faces razed and shreds of paper delicately peeled from the surface, it is clear that these works are not acts of irreverence toward the canons of art history. As the disembodied eyes of old portraits spring aloft and swirl from the surface of the postcard, there is a sense in which these images are reawakened from their trappings (their trappings as miniaturised, gift shop reproductions, perhaps?); animated by the contingency of the paper surface in a kind of exorcism.
This sense of working outwardly from within pictures also exists for Mariana Mauricio’s collage works. Employing the figurative dynamism inherent in her source images of holiday snaps taken in Brazil during the 1960s and 70s, Mauricio’s works co-extend these original images into new compositions and formal alliances. In Fork, for example, the pose of a young girl eating a meal extends itself into another, altogether different, image of an athlete’s contorted body, caught mid-jump. By arranging and composing these two images together in one work, the shape of the young girl’s arm in the first image extends from its own borders, appearing to puppet the athlete’s body in the second. These are not a seamless alliance or an act of compositional gimmickry. With each image we see the dog-eared corners, the crude attachments of sellotape, and effects of oxidation and corrosion – all of which declare these photographs as life-worn objects that have been physically recomposed by the artist.
Mauricio’s use of photographs might prioritise their formal and figurative dynamics, but she never entirely disavows the social and cultural registers of her source images either. We can’t help but view the sad and weakoptimism of the lonely youngsters captured in Mauricio’s found holiday snaps, as though certain that their outlying future was fated with loss. This sense might come as standard with every found photograph from the period: untraceable memories; cute clothes; colour-saturated prints, analogue cameras. But whatever these images seem to miss and long-for, Mariana Mauricio’s collages go some way to seek through indirect means.
In different ways, all three artists remind us that photographs are penetrable materials, with equally penetrable images encoded at their surface. In an age where the same single photograph might exist in a number of print and digital formats, this emphasis on the specific and analogue materiality of found photographs has to be understood deliberately, perhaps even as consequence of these broader changes. Specific characteristics of photographic materiality may have become more apparent as the technology shifts, prompting a set of formal and aesthetic manoeuvres less bound to the communicative transparency of the medium.
The exhibition does not make a straightforward entry into the burgeoning discourses of found photography, and it might just as well seek parity with broader patterns within contemporary art that have seen a return to formal and material concerns in recent years. A return to a modernist rigmarole and a blind eye to art’s social responsibilities? Let’s hope not. A return to further-protracted degrees of abstraction? Let’s hope not also. Instead, Versions and Diversions manages to deliver a perfectly slim and fitting proposition for a formalism of found photography that doesn’t ignore photography’s unique social imperatives.