18
Nov
09

Review: ‘Heavenly Vaults’ by David Stephenson at John Buckley Gallery, Richmond

Exhibition dates: 7th – 28th November 2009

 

David Stephenson. 'Nave, Laon Cathedral, Laon, France' 2006/07

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955)
Nave, Laon Cathedral, Laon, France
2006/07

 

 

I remember many years ago, in the mid-1990’s, seeing the wonderful Domes of David Stephenson displayed in Flinders Lane in what is now fortfivedownstairs gallery. They were a revelation in this light filled space, row upon row of luminous domes seemingly lit from within, filled with the sense of the presence of divinity. On the opposite wall of the gallery were row upon row of photographs of Italian graves depicting the ceramic photographic markers of Italian dead – markers of the impermanence of life. The doubled death (the representation of identity on the grave, the momento mori of the photograph) slipped quietly into the earth while opposite the domes ascended into heaven through their numinous elevation. The contrast was sublime.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the latest exhibition Heavenly Vaults by David Stephenson at John Buckley Gallery, Richmond.

The problems start with the installation of the exhibition. As you walk into the gallery the 26 Cibachrome photographs are divided symmetrically down the axis of the gallery so that the prints reflect each other at both ends and each side of the gallery. It is like walking down the nave of a cathedral and observing the architectural restraint of the stained glass windows without their illumination. Instead of the punctum of light flooding through the stained glass windows, the varying of intensities, the equanimity of the square prints all exactly the same size, all reflecting the position of the other makes for a pedestrian installation. Some varying of the print size and placement would have added much life and movement to a static ensemble.

Another element that needed work were the prints themselves which, with a few notable exceptions, seemed remarkably dull and lifeless (unlike their digital reproductions which, paradoxically, seem to have more life!). They fail to adequately represent the aspirations of the vaults as they soar effortlessly overhead transposing the earth bound into the heaven sent. In the earlier work on the domes (which can be found in the book Visions of Heaven: The Dome in European Architecture) the symmetry of the mandala-like domes with their light-filled inner illumination worked well with the square format of the images making the photographs stand as equivalents for something else, other ineffable states of being.

“The power of the equivalent, so far as the expressive-creative photographer is concerned, lies in the fact that he can convey and evoke feelings about things and situations and events which for some reason or other are not or can not be photographed. The secret, the catch and the power lies in being able to use the forms and shapes of objects in front of the camera for their expressive-evocative qualities. Or to say this in another way, in practice Equivalency is the ability to use the visual world as the plastic material for the photographer’s expressive purposes. He may wish to employ the recording power of the medium, it is strong in photography, and document. Or he may wish to emphasize its transforming power, which is equally strong, and cause the subject to stand for something else too.”1

As Minor White further observes,

“When the image mirrors the man
And the man mirrors the subject
Something might take over”
2

 

When the distance between object and image and image and viewer collapses then something else may be revealed: Spirit.

In this exhibition some of the singular images such as the Crossings, Choirs and Nave of the Church of Santa Maria, Hieronymite Monastery, Belém, Portugal (see photograph below) work best to achieve this revelation. They transcend the groundedness of the earthly plane through their inner ethereal light using a reductive colour palette and strong highlight/shadow detail. Conversely the diptychs and triptychs of Nave and Choir (see photographs below and above) fail to impress. The singular prints pinned to the gallery wall are joined together to form pairs and trios but in this process the ‘space between’ the prints (mainly white photographic paper), the breathing space between two or more photographs that balances their disparate elements, the distance that Minor White calls ‘ice/fire’, does not work. There is no tension, no crackle, no visual crossover of the arches and vaults, spandrels and flutes. Here it is dead space that drags all down with it.

I found myself observing without engagement, looking without wonder or feeling – never a good sign!

The photographs of Domes and Vaults have served David Stephenson well for numerous years but the concept has become tired, the inspiration in need of refreshment through other avenues of exploration – both physical and spiritual.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

.
Many thankx to Daniel and John Buckley Gallery for allowing me to reproduce the photographs from the exhibition. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

  1. White, Minor. “Equivalence: The Perennial Trend,” in PSA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 7, pp. 17-21, 1963 [Online] Cited 08/05/2019
  2. White, Minor. “Three Canons,” from Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations. Viking Press, 1969

 

David Stephenson. 'Choir, Laon Cathedral, Laon, France' 2006/07

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955)
Choir, Laon Cathedral, Laon, France
2006/07

 

David Stephenson. 'St. Hugh’s Choir, Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln, England' 2006/07

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955)
St. Hugh’s Choir, Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln, England
2006/07

 

 

Installation view of Heavenly Vaults by David Stephenson at John Buckley Gallery, Richmond

 

David Stephenson. 'Nave, Cathedral of St. Barbara, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic' 2008/09

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955)
Nave, Cathedral of St. Barbara, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic
2008/09

 

David Stephenson. 'Choir, Cathedral of St. Barbara, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic' 2008/09

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955)
Choir, Cathedral of St. Barbara, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic
2008/09

 

 

“While the subject of my photographs has shifted…my art has remained essentially spiritual – furthermore than two decades I have been exploring a contemporary expression of the sublime – a transcendental experience of awe with the vast space and time of existence.”

.
David Stephenson

 

 

Internationally renowned photographer David Stephenson has dedicated his practice to capturing the sublime in nature and architecture. Fresh from a successful exhibition at Julie Saul Gallery in New York, Stephenson returns to John Buckley Gallery for his third highly anticipated exhibition Heavenly Vaults. The exhibition will feature 26 selected prints from his latest monograph published by Princeton Architectural Press; Heavenly Vaults: From Romanesque to Gothic in European Architecture. Shaun Lakin, Director of the Monash Gallery of Art, will launch the book and exhibition at the opening, November 7th.

Stephenson began to photograph Gothic vaults in Spain and Portugal in 2003, while completing the work for his Domes project, and his first monograph Visions of Heaven: the Dome in European Architecture. He began to focus on the Vaults project in 2006, photographing Gothic churches and cathedrals in England, Belgium and France. With the assistance of an Australia Council Artist Fellowship in 2008-09, Stephenson completed extensive fieldwork for the Vaults project, intensively photographing Romanesque and Gothic architecture in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany. The exhibition at John Buckley Gallery coincides with the launch of his second monograph, Heavenly Vaults: from Romanesque to Gothic in European Architecture, published by Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

Even though the traditional systems the underpinned church architecture have lost their unequivocal power, David Stephenson’s photographs capture the resonance of those times. More importantly his work also suggest that the feelings of aspiration, transcendence, and infinity these buildings evoke in the viewer have an ongoing relevance beyond the religious setting and help us understand who and what we are.

Excerpt from Foreword, Heavenly Vaults, by Dr Isobel Crombie 2009

.
David Stephenson’s new book of photography is a love letter to the intricate, seemingly sui generis vaults of Europe’s Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals and churches.

Press release from the John Buckley website [Online] Cited 11/11/2009 no longer available online

 

David Stephenson. 'Nave, Church of Santa Maria, Hieronymite Monastery, Belém, Portugal' 2008/09

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955)
Nave, Church of Santa Maria, Hieronymite Monastery, Belém, Portugal
2008/09

 

 

‘While the subject of my photographs has shifted from the landscapes of the American Southwest and Tasmania, and the minimal horizons of the Southern Ocean, and the icy wastes of Antarctica, to sacred architecture and the sky at both day and night, my art has remained essentially spiritual – for more than two decades I have been exploring a contemporary expression of the sublime – a transcendental experience of awe with the vast space and time of existence.’

David Stephenson 1998.1

With poetic symmetry the Domes series considers analogous ideas. It is a body of work which has been ongoing since 1993 and now numbers several hundred images of domes in countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, England, Germany and Russia. The typological character of the series reveals the shifting history in architectural design, geometry and space across cultures and time, demonstrating how humankind has continually sought meaning by building ornate structures which reference a sacred realm.2 Stephenson photographs the oculus – the eye in the centre of each cupola. Regardless of religion, time or place, this entry to the heavens – each with unique architectural and decorative surround – is presented as an immaculate and enduring image. Placed together, the photographs impart the infinite variations of a single obsession, while also charting the passage of history, and time immemorial.

1. Van Wyk, S. 1998. “Sublime space: photographs by David Stephenson 1989-1998,” National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne np
2. Hammond, V. 2005. “The dome in European architecture,” in Stephenson, D. 2005, Visions of heaven: the dome in European architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York p. 190

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955) 'Choir, King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England' 2006/07

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955)
Choir, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, England
2006/07

 

David Stephenson. 'Crossing, York Minster, York, England' 2006/07

 

David Stephenson (Australian born America 1955)
Crossing, York Minster, York, England
2006/07

 

 

John Buckley Gallery

This gallery is now closed.

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Dogs, chickens, cattle’ 1994-95

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