Divergent: Abstraction and the Photographic Object

Recent Works by Adam Bunny, Jane Burton, Penelope Davis, Gavin Hipkins, Brian Jefferies, David Martin, Jeffrey Sturges & Andrew Wilson Curated by Simon Cuthbert Plimsoll Gallery, Centre for the Arts, Hobart, September 11 - October 4

Although the Tasmanian art community prides itself on the particularly strong local interest in photography and the large number of significant, Tasmanian-based photographic artists, there have been, lately, very few photographic shows staged in the state, and so, too few opportunities to see good local and 'imported' work.
Things may be looking up however. Simon Cuthbert, himself a well regarded emerging Hobart-based photographic artist has recently curated, for the Plimsoll Gallery, Divergent Abstraction , one of the most satisfying photography shows to be presented in Hobart for some time.

The show's opening celebration was given added interest as it incorporated the launch of Artlink's recent issue "Art, Pornography and Censorship".

Cuthbert's erudite - but very readable - catalogue essay explains not only his particular curatorial criteria, but also outlines very clearly the role and place of photographic abstraction in the development of photography - and in the broader context of the entire visual art spectrum.

Presented along with his analysis of each participant's work, Cuthbert's detailed interpretation of the theoretical concerns, advances and developments, techniques, main practitioners - notably the Surrealists - and influences that shaped abstract photography, is one of the most comprehensive overviews of this subject that this reader has yet encountered.

So, with a curator thoroughly involved with and informed about his subject, it is little wonder that the show is particularly successful, visually and intellectually engaging ... and certainly offers something original and significant.

Entering the gallery, the viewer first meets Arranging Clouds David Martin's installation of 480 very small colour prints, in a 150 x 245 cm grid. Each print depicts an individual cloud formation and the whole 'collaged' work takes on the appearance of one transcendent, idealised skyscape. At the same time, the piece subverts the idea of actual figurative representation, as Cuthbert notes, "dissolving into an elaborate design [and denying] the literal referent."

The work not only evokes the notion of the passage of time (individual 'snapshots' having been taken over an extended period), but also recalls 'sublime nature' as depicted by the Romantic landscape artists. The installation succeeds on a number of levels; not only is it an example of a very simple idea ingeniously explored, but its large scale, integral to the work, gives it an impressive - almost architectural - physicality. On a lighter note, the depicion of bright blue skies and fluffy white clouds is thoroughly reminiscent of balmy summer days, and - as I heard gallery visitors remark - makes it a very up-beat, optimistic, popular work.

Indeed, all of the bodies of work in the show have something individual and important to offer.

Tasmanian viewers will be particularly interested in the new work from Jane Burton, who was, until recently, Hobart-based - and who is the only participant with such local connections. Her "stark, depopulated views of the city" like those of Jeffrey Sturges, have a sense of "absent narrative". Burton's eerie underground parking lot interiors, with their gloomy lighting and angular, grid-like architectural features, read more like cubist or modernist canvases in a limited palette. Similarly, in Sturges's city and urban vignettes, objects are shot in flat close-ups, so that, as Cuthbert explains, "pictorial planes are compressed and de-spatialised" and the works are, again, more about colour, form and shape than figurative representation.

Andrew Wilson subverts photography's claim to objective reality by the manipulation of size and scale and by working with a blurred, soft focus that further removes his subjects from the realm of the recognizable. These are very seductive works in the way they hint and tease at content, but are ultimately not quite decipherable.
Adam Bunny uses camera-less methods to "empty pictorial content to the point where the instability and ambiguity of the resulting image ironically summon the true nature of photographic evidence", as he explains. As Cuthbert observes, in Bunny's Mondrianesque compositions, we find "all the mystery we associate with the abstract".

There is something disconcerting about Gavin Hipkin's four works - three of them from the series The Unforeseen in that they appear to have no common thread in terms of style, colour, form, content or even technique. This, paradoxically, provides them with their own, strong entree into the curatorial concerns of this show.

Penelope Davis' blueprint-like series Photomachine and Brian Jefferies' series Antipodean Europa complete this very well resolved show. While Jefferies' photographs seem to depict the real world, they actually present found models of famous landmarks, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, arranged in rural Australian settings - more than a nod to photographic surrealism.

This very accomplished show invites the viewer to look and question. In particular, to look at "the vernacular and the extrinsic through the eyes of the photographer". For every viewer, this is likely to be an instructive and rewarding exercise.

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