Curated by Sarah McAvera, in a thoughtful display, the small gallery room elegantly housed four large images ( The Illusion of Purpose II., IV, V, X. all 110 x 110cm, 2017 All in edition of 5) by Victoria J Dean and nine by Sharon Murphy, dated 2014, two smallest measuring 210 x 297 mm, five twice as big at 419 x 609 mm and further three still slightly larger at 419 x 419 mm.
Ever since Chuck Close bridged over an assumption that a photographic portrait may cross over the privacy boundaries, until then habitually preferring the range from medailon to hand size scale, photography appeared driven to dethrone murals and billboards from their hegemony. In this exhibition the variations in size are closely related to what the lens is aimed at.
Dean’s single “monuments” tower over the horizon, slightly destabilising themselves from the vertical plane, giving the lens the role of a window, reminiscent of Alberti’s concept of painting. The two Untitled, XVII and VIII, above have not been displayed in this exhibition. My including them has a simple purpose to make visible the sameness that governs the series by the feeling parallel to a current UK project carrying similar words as the title of this exhibition:
A small variation: the “but” is replaced by “and”.
Hence the independence of emotional impact of an actual selected motif. In this context photography is wedded to circulation, to gifting what the lens (as a window) cuts out the whole turning it into another, partly independent, object. A photograph is never just one thing. It grants the visual thought a degree of freedom. However, Dean, exploits one visual habit: we are too eager to attribute extravagant agency to one picture, turning ourselves into participating witness.
Dean thinks of her art as of exploration how and that the physical is registered and made visual by her preferred process. She emailed me her Statement:
The Illusion of Purpose
Technology is restructuring our communication methods, transforming our perceptions and interactions with our environment, and rendering the physical realm comparatively cumbersome and slow. Disconnected from the modern digital world, these material structures and the systems in which they once functioned are obsolete. With the simplicity and directness of a symbolic form, each structure withholds its message, alluding to a relic from a forgotten language.
The Illusion of Purpose explores ideas of materiality, monumentality and the sculptural, questioning the relevance of the physical in our increasingly virtual age, and in a world of communication hijacked by technology.
Not surprisingly her preference for capturing an image of obsolescence activates traditional methods, archival pigment print on Photo Rag, Dibond mounted. As if in agreement Sharon Murphy makes images using ” archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle mounted on Dibond”.
Their methods seem related to a printing process invented by Dunstan Perera (Creart) and/or to Heliochrome. He used “non-toxic and non- carcinogenic chemicals”. Once printed onto watercolour paper the images, he says, are archival. From looking at the surfaces – I cannot tell.
The curator Sarah McAvera thinks that “Victoria Dean’s photographs are notable for their lack of people, yet they are not simple landscapes or seascapes, the structure are the key.” Yet, that absence is only on the physical level. This red cone is a witness of people’ s concerns that memory is fleeting, insecure, imprecise. This object is an anchor of that impermanence, made visual through focus on marks of neglect, pathway leading to the unknown, invisible behind the horizon, and a nonchalant interaction of the cone with the huddled bushes.
People are there and not there… somewhat similar to Karl Marx’s observation that the worker in a factory becomes a part of the machine and is alienated from the whole. Dean’s capacity to select and store a fragment of being as a “whole thing” enables a discourse not of what was there before this image, but what is the image “saying” about people scattering objects like these. What is it saying not about itself, but those who made it, placed it, and those who never even noticed it. This is an extravagant aim – with a huge hole filled with uncertainty and free imagination. It stays worldless and mute.
Sarah McAvera summarised that thus: while absence is the quality that connects both artists ” There is something sinister in the works of these two photographers, a feeling that danger is present even though there is no evidence that it will occur. What is there and what is not is not so easy to decipher, allowing for multiple interpretations and stories to be seen.” (gallery handout)
However – the process of enabling that mute discourse would be not the only concern. Perera questioned the aesthetic value of “straight” photography advocating instead use of the camera as defining the image. I like his question:“My memory is far more beautiful than anything I can take, so what is the point of producing ordinary photographs?” (http://www.2000net.com/fujifilm/perera/)
So – what makes Dean’s images a memory? I suspect different viewers will offer different answers. At this stage I sense manifestation of morality as human nature within nature, with contradiction. The photographed objects and nature are insouciant to the choice made by the viewer.
Would this be a case when the lens views people and not objects? Sharon Murphy’s children in nature harbour an answer by forging a co-existence of care and abandonment, memory and imagination. She explains her intention:
There was a Child (2013-2014) is a series of staged ‘self-portraits as child’ set in natural settings that are at once actual, the constructs of memory, and allegorical. The series operates between the physical landscape and the inner contours of the private self, staged in the landscapes of my early childhood. These images draw on my adult love of theatre: of costumed pose and considered gesture.
Childhood disappears after contracting memory to play hide and seek with consciousness.
The psychological effect of constructing Self from that interplay of real and imagined is as valuable as disorienting but energises the diptych.
Murphy trusts the aesthetic function of constructed sight to give some permanence to fleeting certainty with emphasis on nature ” of her childhood”.
It envelopes the “disinterested figure” who cannot be her – an admission embodied in different subjects, and colours of their attire.
Mutually exclusive they got hold of pleasure from knowing that perception is a fiction.
At times they lead to persuasion through composition that the child is safe. The child trusts whoever takes the photograph. Yet – I sense a strong invincible invitation to be palpably concerned about each child.
Murphy manages to point my attention to all that is outside the frame.
The oscillation is unnerving. Victor Hugo thought that sublime combines the grotesque and beautiful, Murphy combines the safety with fear. Her images are not mechanically objective, even if they are technically obtained under that pretense.
Edmund Burke sought of the danger as conversant source of the sublime. Empathic tuning with the object of observation requires abdication of reason to enable the encounter to stay impressive. Murphy leads me to think through the details… yet not being free of the impact of the whole, both of each photograph and the series. That I see parallel to theatre.
Both Dean and Murphy work with a duality of constructed sight dominating the unseen.
In that sense these photographs obtained a relationship with painting.
Images courtesy the artists.