15 September – 21 October, 2018
Review by Daniel Pateman
IMAGE draws together historical and contemporary photography to productive effect, with exhibition curators Catherine Milner and Laura Grace Simpkins crafting an engaging narrative of photography’s changing preoccupations from the mid-twentieth century to the present day.
The exhibition is comprised of two halves. The Long Gallery explores the proliferation of celebrity and fashion photography in the mid-twentieth century, driven in the post-war years by a rise in consumerism and advertising. While the focus here is on portrait and documentary photography, the works in the barn present a rupture to a historically male-dominated practice. Contemporary works by artists such as Juno Calypso and Maisie Cousins, typified by vivid colours, theatrical staging and a disciplined control of the viewer’s gaze, challenge a legacy of image-making that has often elided female experience; highlighting the constructed nature of photography rather than offering it as guarantor of truth.
In the Long Gallery we are presented with a smorgasbord of celebrities, names made famous both in front of and behind the camera: Andy Warhol, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Angela Williams and Mick Rock, to name a few. Glamour, fashion and fame thread these images together in a jovial, mostly uncritical manner. Despite the ubiquity of these public figures, the refreshing selection of images elucidates a common humanity rather than a separate sphere of existence, the exhibition elevated by the inclusion of photographs not before seen outside of private collections. A number of Warhol’s polaroids, in which he and fellow photographer Peter Beard gurn beside a dog titled ‘Friend’, reveal a side to the infamous artist rarely seen by the public, as does Beard’s thin strip of prints of Warhol by the sea in Montauk. Rather than displaying his carefully curated persona, these images depict him at ease and without pretense.
While often fetishised, as we see with Angus McBean’s subtly staged images of Vivien Leigh and Peggy Ashcroft, the photographs displayed are largely illustrative of a private side of well-known public figures. Angela Williams captures the subjective qualities of the sitter in more naturalistic settings. Particularly striking is her portrait of Paul Newman in middle-age - greying but still ineffably cool - his blue eyes looking out over a pair of large sunglasses, as well as a joyous high-angle shot of Marianne Faithful running through St James’ Park. Mick Rock’s work illustrates the medium’s capacity to comment on the nature of celebrity with his candid, observational depictions. Bowie and Mick Ronson eating a lunch of boiled potatoes and peas on a train to Aberdeen while donned in glam-rock attire suggests a thin line lies between the extraordinary and the ordinary. Rock’s image of Warhol being embraced by Truman Capote while dressed as Santa most directly confronts the constructed nature of the image: the detail of a camera just inside the frame marking the picture as an astute evocation of artifice.
The works in the Long Gallery end with the lavish colour photographs of Neal Slavin from his 1980s series Britons. Jarring somewhat with the prior representation of idolised individuals, his rigorously composed shots and representation of group identities help transition us to the images in the barn. Under its thatched roof and arched wooden rafters hang the photographs of Juno Calypso, Maisie Cousins, Natalie Krick, Anna Fox, Alison Goldfrapp, and Polly Penrose. Smouldering pink and red against black sheets - particularly Cousins’ large macro-lens shots of flowers and tightly-cropped body parts - the photographers playfully explore women’s historic reduction to being an object of desire.
Cousins has memorably stated that “nature is always beautiful and disgusting. Even the most beautiful people leak, bleed and shit”, challenging the idea of flawless feminine beauty. There is an element of the grotesque in her work, a commingling of natures, as the integrity of the human body is questioned by conflation with plant and insect life. Photos like grass bum reveal the minutiae of skin such as pores and fine hairs - details often airbrushed in advertising - with an oiled buttock strewn with grass and rose petals. Defying the festishisation of the female body, Cousins draws out the natural in the ‘ugly’ and the artificial in cultural benchmarks of beauty, emphasising a more complex reality.
Penrose’s specially commissioned series The Reeds continues these themes and adds to them that of commodification. Each of her photographs varies the same elements: tall prominent reeds; a horizontal stretch of grey sky, and the artist’s semi-nude body partially obscured by wrapping materials. Parcel bows cover her body like growths, their use as decoration on goods suggesting the denial of a female reality through fetishisation. Meanwhile Fox and Goldfrapp’s collaboration, Country Girls, alludes to sexual violence because of this commodification. Here, the bare legs of a mannequin are shown in red high heels, spread among penetrating bluebells, poking out from under a bush or abandoned by a muddy puddle.
IMAGE is a promising start to what will hopefully be the first of many photographic forays at Messums Wiltshire. It brings a perceptive freshness to a world saturated by images of celebrities and encourages their critique by juxtaposition with contemporary works. These more recent pieces highlight the obscured politics of looking and, in delightfully surreal and evocative ways, help to challenge the narrow scope of female representation.