City of Perth PhotoMedia Award Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) 5 October - 5 November 2006
The west coast may not be home to the Australian Centre for Photography or the Centre for Contemporary Photography but we do have a fervent photography audience and an abundance of great talent. We are on the way to building a robust reputation for exhibiting photography with the third international FotoFreo Festival of Photography this year, the emergence of the Johnson Gallery specializing on photomedia, and the development of the biennial City of Perth PhotoMedia Awards. This local government initiated award has grown since 1993 from a local content show, to become a national prize of significance.
National shows located in Perth provide the opportunity for WA artists to be seen by local audiences in national contexts, exhibiting in the company of recognised Australian artists. Strategically this is significant as Western Australian artists often find themselves isolated from the rest of the country and can find their ambitions marginalised by the tyranny of distance.
Speaking of distance, there are some limitations with the architecture of Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts that interfere with viewing the images. Half the show is exhibited in the upstairs atrium space which means that the viewing distance is either up close and personal or far away. Despite this, the show is engaging and thought-provoking. Many of the works are presented in series, which helps to give the show substance. Awards and group shows can so often be consumed like a flippant browse through a magazine but the juxtaposition within a set of images, such a crucial device in photography, serves to enhance the viewer's experience of the individual works. For example, the imagination is greatly stimulated by Mark McPherson's series Hijacked where three portraits are grouped with an interior shot of a banal empty clubroom. Two of the subjects are youthful multicultural residents of Perth, both directly gazing into the camera with a slight sense of defiance. The third is an extremely accomplished portrait of an ageing Perth tycoon, the infamous Alan Bond, whose expression seems to be one of defeat. The combination of these images creates a narrative of our times, and of the Australian community, which is open-ended.
A majority of works use people as their subjects and the triptych Thirteen, Five & Five, Thirteen by Toni Wilkinson (runner-up) is a beautifully composed and sensitive exploration of childhood and growing up. Similarly moving is Lyndal Walker's portrait from the series Stay Young. Full of promise, Jamie is pictured in his underwear posing in his messy bedroom, his self-conscious posture contrasting with his direct and confident stare. The Good Samaritan by Paul Knight is an amusing work set in a bare domestic environment with a fully dressed man in an acrobatic embrace with a semi-clad female contortionist. The tension between the bodies (and a wall) is clearly a metaphor for the symbiotic struggles within relationships where the boundaries between love and control cannot always be determined.
Themes of identity and the public/private spheres continue in works devoid of humans such as the evocative abandoned motel rooms by Paula Grgurich Shewchuk, Julie Alessandrini's architectural interventions and Ed Hughes' amazing lunagraphs of a sea cliff bridge south of Sydney.
One work is different from the rest and the judges (Ian Mclean and Bec Dean) awarded this large nature study the $10 000 prize. seed_race [the herd] by Brisbane-based emerging photographer Walter Stahl is an arresting image employing the strategy of scale to monumentalise the microcosm. The quality of the work is outstanding, with use of subdued colour on a deep black background creating a dramatic and painterly effect. It inspires us to scrutinize our everyday environment and discover the secret lives and struggles occurring underfoot. The composition of the seeds traveling across the image suggests that they are headed somewhere with a purpose, not unlike images we carry in our heads of spermatozoa seeking an egg. And this is reinforced in the title of the work. The seeds become symbols for all of us who are trying to stand out, to succeed and to survive. It seems a fitting theme to win a prize!