David Chancellor: Handle Like Eggs / Reviewed by Ellie Howard / 24.03.17
In his first retrospective, Handle like Eggs at Francesca Maffeo Gallery, David Chancellor has woven together two dominant themes within his practice, relating the vast natural world to his smaller domestic one. The peaks of sub-saharan Africa are juxtaposed with the moody valleys of Scotland; a Balmoral Christmas is positioned next to the leaping Samburu Moran celebrating Imuget Le Nkarn (10-years of warriorship) and a young King Cheetah crouched over a pool is hung just above his young son, who is photographed naked and embracing a giant Aloe vera plant at dusk. Although two distinct bodies of work, when shown together they offer a moving meditation on the transience of life.
Shot over six continents between 2005 – 2016, the passing of time is recorded with eidetic purpose. Works are not dated, bar two portraits of Chancellor’s son. The moment of Finlay’s birth is recorded in “Finlay @ 16.34hr. 27.08.08, Cape Town, South Africa”. Newborn, his entrance into the world is smeared with blood, a conjugated substance that links life & death and is the gory lynchpin of Chancellor’s work on game hunting. On the other end of the spectrum another rite of passage is documented, albeit captured too late. An empty armchair is sat by a window, facing towards the light. It’s simply labelled “The Death of Georgina Thompson, Brunstane, Edinburgh, Scotland”.
Like the majority of retrospectives, the show can be read autobiographically. Within the merger of two bodies of work, Chancellor has shed his portraits of ‘professional’ hunters and instead selected those of his wife and child. However there is one exception: “Huntress with Buck, South Africa”. As Chancellor’s most recognisable work and the winner of the Taylor Wessing Portrait prize (2010), it’s a touchstone in Chancellor’s modus operandi. A portrait of a teenage girl with red hair ablaze in the tawny evening light, returning to camp at dusk with a buck slung across the withers of her horse. Straddling the line between fine-art and photojournalism, it captures that perplexing, elegiac beauty that is inherent within Chancellor’s best work.
Freed from the strict ethic impartiality of reportage – something Chancellor excels at – we feel a slight melancholy ebb, perhaps at watching mankind’s increasing ‘commodification of wildlife’ or the fact Chancellor spends up to nine months a year away from his young family. Loss, both of time and surroundings is brought into sharp focus. Often in Chancellor’s work, effects of nostalgia and ambiguity are achieved or at least emphasised by light effects. In “Cheetah, Samburu National Park, Kenya”, the light takes on a dark and sombre tonality. A heart-breaking image, in which a lifeless animal’s hind quarters have been cropped to reveal innocent, bountiful life in the soft curl of a tail which abruptly contrasts with it’s paws bound by gaffer tape.
Partially hidden from sight, only visible when crossing from the gallery front space to the back-room, an unmistakably Finlay scribble is pasted onto the wall – just underneath the exhibition title. A large whistling thorn, spiked and slightly barbaric, is crowned by a nest. A pair of birds, sat perched either side, are pictured looking down tentatively at two eggs. The image says it all. Life is a delicate balance; it’s ecosystem is inherently fragile. Chancellor’s thoughts are laid bare: handle with care.
– reviewed by Ellie Howard