photography: stillness & beyond

keith gallasch visits stills gallery to talk photomedia

Van Sowerwine’s Small Beasts

Van Sowerwine’s Small Beasts

STILLS, IN ITS CAPACIOUS CONVERTED WAREHOUSE IN SYDNEY’S PADDINGTON, HAS BEEN A RARE COMMERCIAL SUCCESS IN art PHOTOGRAPHY, FEATURING A STRONG STABLE OF AUSTRALIAN ARTISTS, EXPORTING THEIR WORK AND INTRODUCING OVERSEAS ARTISTS TO AUSTRALIAN AUDIENCES AND BUYERS. I MET WITH OWNER-DIRECTOR KATHY FREEDMAN, CO-DIRECTOR BRONWYN RENNEX AND CURATOR SANDY EDWARDS TO DISCUSS JUST HOW A COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHIC GALLERY HAS ADAPTED TO THE AGE OF PHOTOMEDIA. ALTHOUGH THEY COME FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS AND HAVE IDIOSYNCRATIC TASTES, THE TRIO EXUDE A COLLECTIVE PASSION FOR THEIR ARTFORM, PICK UP ON EACH OTHER’S THOUGHTS AND PASSIONS, COMPLETING OTHERS’ SENTENCES WITH AN EASY FAMILIARITY. THEY DECLARE THEIR SHARED COMMITMENT TO AN EVOLVING MEDIUM AND TO THE ESTABLISHED ARTISTS THEY REPRESENT AND THE EMERGING ONES THEY SEEK OUT.

The current Stills exhibition features sculptures (small dog scale) made by Van Sowerwine with accompanying photographs of the same creatures in their natural habitat, pockets of lush bush in an urban setting. You approach one on its plinth, sneak a touch of its soft, pink skin and peer into a wound-like hole on its forehead where you glimpse miniature video images of the creature’s thoughts—foliage, other beasts and a slurry of moving brain matter. As usual with Sowerwine this is a grimly comic experience, if certainly less dark than previous works. Van Sowerwine’s creatures may be cute and toy-like but they are also alien presences. In an adjoining space we watch bracing, raw black and white videos on screens large and small by US artist William Lamson of thwarted human endeavour where, for example, a man tries to keep pace with a giant paper dart flying over him on a nighttime landscape. This combination of photographs, sculpture, video and installation is now part of the photographic gallery experience, and although the phenomenon has been in evidence for quite a while, it is currently in a state of acceleration.

adaptation & survival

Kathy Freedman recalls that the move in 1997 from a small terrace house to the former film studio which now houses Stills was motivated by a need for space in which to show large scale (an enormous image by Emil Goh in the opening show), multimedia works (a Merilyn Fairskye video installation in the same show) and series of images (Pat Brassington). But it was only this year that Stills invested in a large video monitor: “We’d managed to get by without owning the equipment until now—it was the artist’s responsibility to chase it up”, says Edwards, to which Freedman adds, “we need to commit if we are seeking out artists working with the moving image and for our existing artists who are starting to.” But there’s a larger issue at stake.

“To survive as a gallery,” explains Freedman, “we needed to attract a lot more collectors of contemporary art, people who see photomedia and photography as embedded in contemporary art. We just don’t have the population in Australia of people who collect straight photography.” This has also meant broadening the kinds of artists Stills represents, “something we anticipated 10 years ago as photomedia began to move to the forefront of contemporary art. But it’s only in the last three years that we’ve been really moving in this expanded area—Merilyn Fairskye had been our main artist working in moving image and installation.”

Edwards comments that Rennex “has had a lot to do with that, tuning into the people doing work of that nature. Kathy and I come out of a slightly different tradition and a majority of our artists continue to work in still images mounted on walls.” To which Rennex adds, “and there’s still a lot to get out of people working that way.”

Freedman thinks the market for moving image is growing: “shows like the Anne Landa Award at the Art Gallery of New South Wales are good for this. We took on Van Sowerwine after seeing Play With Me, shortlisted in the first show. This is the first William Lamson showing in Australia; he’s still reasonably young.”

emergence

Rennex says that in expanding the range of artists and the kind of works Stills engages with, the gallery “has used its first exhibition for the last two years to feature emerging artists—this year Peter Volich with his framed football jerseys with small found photos, Daniel Kotja’s installation and photographs and, the year before, Martine Corompt with her vinyl wall pictures and projection and Van Sowerwine with her crank-handle animation. This first show of the year for me has been about opening the door a little more—still photos are just one part of photomedia now.” Freedman recalls that there was a time “when we felt constrained by the photograph on the wall. Now there’s a problem we’ve been grappling with, our name—Stills. What name could we adopt that would reflect what we’re doing?”

digitally unreal

When I comment on the magic of recent digital photography, its heightened detail, unusual texturing, painterliness and various effects, Edwards makes the observation that “in the past we thought we had a notion of what was real in a photograph, but now the digital realm has created a situation where people come at the image from another angle, asking, Is this a photograph? They no longer believe in the veracity of the photograph.” Freedman adds, “Everything is read as digital now.”

Many photographers now work digitally, but not everyone, says Edwards citing the example of Stephanie Valentin “who uses an electron microscope to put words on pollen grains and then photographs that.” “You think it must be something created digitally”, says Rennex, “but it’s not.” Edwards explains: “The old processes still remain in the mix. Valentin is using a method equivalent to a photogram (when you place an object on the paper), but she’s putting the object in front of a projector and passing light through it. It hits the wall, it’s made large—so she’s inverting the scale—there’s nothing digital, it’s all manual, but mysterious.” Rennex mentions that Christine Cornish “who once would have laboured over a silver gelatin print, produced her last show using pigment prints—but Pat Brassington and Robyn Stacey have been working digitally for a long time as part of their whole process.”

“We have great fun with Pat Brassington’s images”, says Freedman, laughing, “asking, What is that thing, that disgusting thing? Looks obscene. But Pat rarely tells us. If she does, it’s an incredibly prosaic description—a sock filled with something.” Edwards describes Brassington “working with her negatives from the past, whatever’s there, whatever mess is on the negative, scanning them and creating a whole new object in the computer. So it’s about her imagination in relation to the past, which we don’t know about and she doesn’t want us to.”

selecting & selling

The trio agrees that selecting and taking on an artist is very personal. Freedman recalls Rennex putting forward Roger Ballen [RT 75, 52] with his dark humour and strangeness: “I looked at the book and thought I love this work, but I don’t know if it’s going to sell. In fact it has sold to institutions and private collectors—not all of them work from that particular show.” It was the first serious look at Ballen in Australia; for some “he came with a reputation and a number of books”, says Rennex, and for others, says Edwards, “the response was immediate even if they hadn’t heard of him.”

Edwards praises Freedman “for never showing just on grounds of commerciality. You don’t know what’s going to take off. You go on your instinct and interest and love of the work and you wouldn’t want to be showing anything you didn’t like. Success reveals itself over time. Certain artists rise to the top as good sellers, and we’ve got a fair few of these and you depend on that. Then others come in and you grow them and they get picked up or not. There are so many factors…Artists “see us as a lifeline—it’s a very mutual relationship.”

balancing acts

Freedman says running Stills is all about balance—established/emerging, national/international, photography/photomedia—but also “the balance of our personalities.”

I ask the trio to talk a little about their relationship with photography. Kathy Freedman tells me, “My background is in psychology and I worked for many years as a psychologist before taking on the gallery. What I notice in me is gravitation towards quite disturbing works. There certainly needs to be some sort of emotional, not necessarily overt, content that stays in my mind—Brassington and Ballen appeal in particular and Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight series, which has been my favourite work of his—a travelogue of Australia but a view of its dark side.”

Sandy Edwards describes herself as “coming from a traditional documentary background and it’s never left me. I still love the image. And also, having been a photographer, learning how to make perfect images, expose and print them correctly, never quite leaves you. I still see the skill in making an image which is an imprint from the world in some way. There’s a huge range of work within that category and I’ve got particular tastes in it, but I still love the image on the wall that tells you about the world we live in.”

Bronwyn Rennex says she “responds mostly to work that suggests ruptures in civilisations or failures—because photography is so often used to sell things and to make things appear perfect. It’s always a relief for me when there’s an idiosyncratic voice that speaks about imperfect things or that escape social structures. Lamson is an example of work about failure—a reminder of what it is to be human. And it’s in my own work, about things that run under the surface. In Always Hungry (2001), the very act of trying to satiate oneself is self-defeating. The more you want the less you have. And for me the shadow self is more honest than the surface self.”

Despite these different perspectives, Rennex says that the trio’s tastes often coincide. “There’s quite a big overlap”, Freedman confirms. There was, for example, unanimity on the forthcoming Magnum 60th Anniversary show which includes Alec Soth (USA). Rennex says “He captures not just Niagara Falls but the mythology, the hopes and dreams laid on that place.” His work reminds Freedman of Wellington-based Anne Noble’s Antarctica (Stills, April-May 2006) which looked on the surface like a straight documentary but “juxtaposed images from Noble’s Antarctic residency with those of museum dioramas representing that polar world.”

photomedia ecology

The trio feel that sharing audiences and market with other galleries is a good thing for Stills and for photography in general. Rennex notes that “the MCA has had a lot of photography shows in recent years and arts magazines have been focusing on it.” Freedman mentions Roslyn Oxley9, exhibiting photography for many years, and the Sherman and Gitte Weiss galleries, and says, “the major institutions have been incredibly supportive of us and our artists.” Edwards sees this spreading connectivity as “a slow growing relationship—we’re in touch with the key curators and there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, discussing things. Australian photography has been enjoying a heyday in the last 15 years in the way that Gail Newton (NGA) was fighting to achieve in the early days. Photography is now up there with any other medium and has realised itself. As a result a lot of artists have chosen to work with photography.”

Freedman comments, “it was a divide, between photographers and artists who work with photography.” Edwards enlarges, “There was a big politic there but it has moved on a bit. For example, a lot of group exhibitions have brought documentary back into the field after it had been excluded for a while and now documentary’s manifesting in very different ways. These photographers have got wise. They’re using large scale images and installation.” “They’ve evolved too, necessarily”, adds Rennex. “To the extent I’m happy about doing the Magnum show. It feels like a real shift”, concludes Freedman.

www.stillsgallery.com.au

RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg. 41

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2007