23
Sep
12

Review: ‘Photographic abstractions’ at the Monash Gallery of Art (MGA), Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 3rd August – 30th September 2012

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John Gollings
born Australia 1944
Untitled
1988
from the series Bushfire aerials
Gelatin silver print
45.5 x 56.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist

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John Gollings
born Australia 1944
Untitled
1988
from the series Bushfire aerials
Gelatin silver print
45.5 x 55.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist

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David Stephenson
born United States of America 1955 arrived Australia 1982
Star drawing 1996/402
1996
from the series Star drawings 1995-2006
Chromogenic print, printed 2008
55.8 x 55.8 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist, John Buckley Gallery Melbourne, Boutwell Draper Gallery, Sydney and Bett Gallery, Hobart

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Paul Knight
born Australia 1976
Cinema curtain #3
2004
Chromogenic print
43.5 x 55.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist

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“The function of the stage curtain in the cinema was to help suspend the illusion of reality in the moving image of the film. The idea being that the plain white screen behind the curtain was never seen without the moving image on it. So the illusion always existed behind the curtain and was simply masked-off from us by it. This is partly why the image was alway projected onto the curtain for a moment before it was opened, to ensure that we never saw the dead white screen. These works use this function of the cinema stage curtain as a way of engaging with the meta-reality offered by the flat-plane of a photographic print. Utilising the lure of aesthetics and pattern to bring the viewer onto the folded membrane of the curtain and onto the essentially flat plane of the print. Both give way to a potential of volume.”

Text from the Paul Knight website

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Paul Knight
born Australia 1976
Cinema curtain #2
2004
Chromogenic print
43.5 x 55.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist

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Dropping the abstract ball

There are some excellent works in this interestingly themed exhibition at the Monash Gallery of Art. Unfortunately the exhibition, the theme and the work are let down by two curatorial decisions. Before I address those issues I will give my insight into some of the work presented:

  • A wonderful print of Sisters of Charity, Washington DC by David Moore (1956) where the starched cornettes of the sisters reminded me of paper doves. The kicker or punctum in this image is the hand of one of the sisters pointing skywards/godwards
  • Wonderful David Stephenson Star Drawing. I always like photographs from this series. Taken in Central Australia using as many as 72 multiple exposures, Stephenson used a set of rules for each exposure – deciding on the length and amount of exposure and how far he would rotate the camera between each exposure before embarking on the creation of each image. The construction of the image was pre-determined  but because of the movement of the earth and stars over a couple of hours, the result always incorporated an element of chance. Stephenson draws with light that is millions of years old, the source of which may not exist by the time the light falls on Stephenson’s photographic plate (the star might be dead)
  • John Gollings Untitled from the Bushfire series. Beautiful, luminous black and white silver gelatin prints of tracks in bushfire affected areas. These aerial photographs make the surface of the earth seem like the surface of the skin complete with hairs and wrinkles. In process they reference the New Topographics exhibition of 1975, where the mapping of the landscape is etched into the surface of the photographic print, where the pictorial plane records the environment like the marks on an etching plate. “The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion.”
  • The beautiful Scott Redford Urinal photographs where the subject becomes secondary to the abstract visual elements as the flash bounces off the metal surfaces. Tight camera angles and a limited colour palette cause an almost transcendent composition. The swirls and markings and the sword-like quality of the central image (see below) remind me of Excalibur rising from the lake, dripping water.
  • Four photographs by John Cato, one each from Petroglyph 1971-79, Waterway 1971-79, Proteus 1971-79 and Tree – a journey 1971-79. These were incredibly beautiful and moving photographs, abstractions of the natural world. You need to be reminded what an amazing artist John was, one of the very best Australian photographers, his poetic photographs are cosmological in their musicology and composition
  • Two photographs from Paul Knight’s outstanding Cinema curtain series (above). For me there was a textural, sensory experience here, an intimacy with the subject matter that forced me to focus on the surface of the photograph, the flat plane of the photographic print, itself a highly abstract form. Amazing
  • My particular favourite in the exhibition were the, to me, unknown works of the artist Jozef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski (see the two images directly below). These photographs were the most delightful surprise of the exhibition – landscapes of the mind that had great feeling and focus, felt movement, space, flow of light and energy. This was wonderfully nuanced work that I wanted to see more of

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Some excellent work then that was let down by two curatorial decisions. The first was the amount of work in the exhibition by each artist – a couple of prints here, another three small prints there – that really never gave the viewer chance to fully engage with the outcomes that the artist was trying to achieve nor explore the process that the artist was using. I know this was a group exhibition trying to highlight work from the collection but a more useful contribution would have been less artist’s in the exhibition with greater work from each, allowing for a more focused exhibition.

Far more serious, however, was the lack of any text that placed the work in a socio-cultural context. At the beginning of the exhibition there was 5 short paragraphs on a wall as you enter the space with mundane insights such as:

  • Photographic language engages the senses and imagination and challenges the way we “look” at the world
  • Through the use of cropping and obscure angle the familiar is made unfamiliar
  • Colour, shape and form (geometric patterns) are important
  • Some artists’ eliminate the camera altogether through photograms, scanner, collage
  • Use of multiple exposures, distortion, mirroring
  • By drilling down into the substances and processes of photography we can reflect on the very nature of photography itself
  • Exploring geometry and patterns found in nature and the built environment or alluding to more intangible themes such as time, mortality and spirituality

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I have précised the five paragraphs but that’s all you get!

The only other information comes from brief wall texts accompanying each artist and these sound bites really don’t give any social and cultural context to the artist, the time they lived in or the social themes that would have influenced the work. For example, who would know from this exhibition that the artist John Cato was one of the first photographers in Australia to create visual tone poems using images of the Australian landscape, one of the first to work in sequences of images and who would go on to be a teacher of great repute, helping other emerging photographic artists at a critical time in the development of Australian art photography. Nobody. Also, I wanted to know more about the “substances” and “processes” of photography in regard to photographic abstraction. There was no serious theoretical enquiry, no educational component offered to the viewer here.

While money might be tight there is really no excuse for this lack of creditable, researched, insightful information. You don’t need a catalogue, all you need is a photo-stated 4-6 page essay to be given to visitors (if they desire to have one, if they want the information). It doesn’t take money it takes will to inform and educate the viewer about this important aspect of Australian photographic history. For a subject so engaging this was most disappointing. In this particular case the curators really did drop the abstract ball.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to the Monash Gallery of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Jozef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski
born Poland 1922 arrvied Australia 1949 died 1994
Untitled
c. 1971
Gelatin silver print
24.6 x 19.2 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist

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Jozef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski
born Poland 1922 arrvied Australia 1949 died 1994
Australia Square – Sydney
1971
from the series Inscape 871
Gelatin silver print
29.4 x 24.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist

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Anne MacDonald
born Australia 1960
Cloth (red velvet)
2004
Ink-jet print
127.0 x 105.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© courtesy of the artist and Bett Gallery, Hobart

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John Cato
Australia 1926-2011
Tree – a journey
1971-79
from the series Essay I
Gelatin silver print
35.5 x 27.5 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the John Cato Estate

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Chantal Faust
born Australia 1980
Waiting
2007
Chromogenic print
80.0 x 58.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© courtesy of the artist

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Chantal Faust
born Australia 1980
Lap Milk
2007
Chromogenic print
80.0 x 58.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© courtesy of the artist

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“Drawing on MGA’s collection of Australian photographs, Photographic abstractions highlights the work of 33 Australian artists who use photography to achieve abstract effects. Ranging from modernist geometric abstraction and the psychedelic experiments and conceptual projects of the 1970s, through to recent explorations of pixelated pictorial space, this exhibition surveys a rich history of abstract Australian art photography. Photography is traditionally recognised for its ability to depict, record and document the world. However, this exhibition sets out to challenge these assumptions. As co-curator of the exhibition and MGA Curator Stephen Zagala states, “The artists in this exhibition are less concerned with documenting the world and more interested in engaging the senses, exciting the imagination and making the ordinary appear extraordinary.”

Some artists have eliminated the camera altogether, preferring the effects that can be achieved with photograms and digital scans. Other artists have experimented with multiple exposures, mirrored images, irregular lenses and the printing of the usually discarded stubs of negatives. Co-curator and MGA Curatorial Assistant Stella Loftus-Hills says, “Photography has always been tied to abstraction. Some of the first photographs ever produced were abstract and subsequent photographers have sought out abstract compositions in their work.” 

One highlight of the exhibition is a selection of works by the iconic Australian photographer David Moore, who experimented with abstract photography alongside his more well-known figurative work. In Moore’s Blue collage (1983) the process of cutting bands of colour from existing photographs to create a new composition celebrates the artist’s imagination above and beyond the camera’s ability to capture content.

Artists include Andrew Browne, John Cato, Jo Daniell, John Delacour, Peter Elliston, Joyce Evans, Chantel Faust, Susan Fereday, Anthony Figallo, George Gittoes, John Gollings, Graeme Hare, Melinda Harper, Paul Knight, Peter Lambropoulos, Bruno Leti, Anne MacDonald, David Moore, Grant Mudford, Harry Nankin, Ewa Narkiewicz, John Nixon, Rose Nolan, Jozef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski, Robert Owen, Wes Placek, Susan Purdy, Scott Redford, Jacky Redgate, Wolfgang Sievers, David Stephenson, Mark Strizic and Rick Wood.”

Press release from the MGA website

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David Moore
Australia 1927-2003
Sun patterns within the Sydney Opera House
1962
Gelatin silver print, printed 2005
37.75 x 25.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the Estate of David Moore

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David Moore
Australia 1927-2003
Sisters of Charity, Washington DC
1956
Gelatin silver print
30.5 x 19.5 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the Estate of David Moore

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Robert Owen
born Australia 1937
Street, Burano, Italy
1978
Silver dye bleach print
20.0 x 25.0 cm
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

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Robert Owen
born Australia 1937
Green Sheet, Burano, Italy
1978
Silver dye bleach print
Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection
© courtesy of the artist and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

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Scott Redford
born Australia 1962
Urinal (Broadbeach)
2000-01
from the Urinals series 1988-2001
Chromogenic print
Collection of the artist
© courtesy of the artist

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Scott Redford
born Australia 1962
Urinal (Surfer’s Paradise)
2000-01
from the Urinals series 1988-2001
Chromogenic print
Collection of the artist
© courtesy of the artist

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Scott Redford
born Australia 1962
Urinal (Fortitude Valley)
2000-01
from the Urinals series 1988-2001
Chromogenic print
Collection of the artist
© courtesy of the artist

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“Redford’s photographs of urinals… dialogue with art historical motifs that precede discourses of minimal art and postmodern understandings of the abject. In representing the site of male urination, they evoke the oxidation paintings of Andy Warhol, who directed young men to piss onto canvases prepared with copper oxide, resulting in compelling abstract imagery…. All of that is in Redford’s photographs and at the same time they are completely empty and quiet and contemplative… They are pure sensory experience like rainfall, even transcendent in their purity. They are concerned with beauty, but they are beyond debates about beauty. They are indifferent and in this they are transcendent.’

Chapman, Christopher. “Scott Redford’s urinals,” in Redford, Scott et.al. Bricks are Heavy (exhibition catalogue). Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, pp. 6-7.

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Monash Gallery of Art
860 Ferntree Gully Road, Wheelers Hill
Victoria 3150 Australia
T: + 61 3 8544 0500

Opening hours:
Tue-Fri: 10am-5pm
Sat-Sun: 12pm-5pm
Mon/public holidays: closed

Monash Gallery of Art website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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