Image / Reviewed by Jaime Marie Davis / 31.10.18
Within the recently restored 13th century Place Farm, Messums Wiltshire art centre has been staging experimental, often installation-based contemporary projects for the past two years. Their recent group exhibition, Image, is a “reflection on contemporary culture” with more than 70 images by 19 photographers, spanning 80 years — and brings Messum’s traditionally historic focus on British Impressionists and late 19th century works, to the present.
Gathered with the curatorial theme of observation, the show is divided into two distinct sites: the Long Gallery and the Tithe Barn. A procession of mainly small scale photographs face an expansive view of the landscape in the Long Gallery. Mannered portraits taken by Angus McBean of Vivien Leigh and Peggy Ashcroft hang alongside Cecil Beaton vignettes of leisurely countryside gatherings. Mick Rock, Angela Williams, Charlie Wheeler, Norman Parkinson and several others capture celebrated icons of their era: Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, David Bowie, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, and Truman Capote, to name a few.
Initially, the portraits draw an inquisitive audience into the details of lives we intimately know. Generations have closely followed documentation of these figures’ gestures and fashions — perhaps often mirroring them, finding affinity with their mediated experiences. Although the faces are easily identifiable for most Tisbury visitors, the selection increasingly points towards subversive characters, aware of the image becoming integral to their persona. Mick Rock, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol, New York City, 1979 is one example. Staged in front of a green screen, Capote and Warhol dressed as Santa Claus – the ultimate Western celebrity – revel in theatricality and camp posturing, further underlined by the second camera purposefully held within the frame, exposing the illusion as a rebuttal. The dominance of celebrity focus is met with a more conceptual and artistic approach to staging. The Britons series by Neal Slavin is a poignant collection of the unseen and overlooked groups of people often within iconic settings, but is somewhat awkwardly hidden in the corner and end of the exhibition space.
Weighted in equipoise to the historically male dominated medium, six women photographers are given their own space for the second half of the exhibition in the Tithe Barn. Each photograph is encased between plexiglass, creating a frameless, uniform affect, and suspended in front of a single, lofty drop of black theatre draping. Making use of the expansive height of the ceiling and dividing the barn into several open rooms, the installation becomes an unfolding maze of spectral imagery.
Undeniably sybaritic, the images of dewy skin, rouge lacquered lips, plush interiors, and leatherette heels pierce the cavernous, challenging space. Maisie Cousins’ contributions hold terse contradictions of eroticism and repulsion: Grass Bum and Slug feature a perfectly manicured hand aggressively clawing a supple, objectified subject sprayed with freshly cut grass. This is matched with the second image, portraying a parasitic form secreting a film of mucus against the seductively luscious skin of a closely cropped breast.
Natalie Krick’s aging, queered subjects effectively tread a fine line between vanity and vanitas, while Polly Penrose’s staged subjects foreground concerns of artificiality through reproduction, and criticism of a packaged identity. Similarly, Anna Fox & Alison Goldfrapp’s collaborative project underlines the stilted portrayal of female identity contrasted by their natural environments in Country Girls series. Juno Calypso’s Fantasy Suite becomes a punctum for the second half of the exhibition, and is a key to reading the other works, which are often staged self portraits of her alter ego. Fantasy Suite features a pink 1960s jacuzzi bathtub and confronts the viewer not only with the rare emptiness of human form in the exhibition, but of reflection. The viewer’s voyeuristic expectations are for the first time denied.
In context, the exhibition reads as a daring and smart affront to preconceived ideas of countryside aesthetics and identity, backed by a plethora of landscape motifs amongst theatrical posturing and abject over-indulgence. As a group that has received abundant critical acclaim, the photographers in the Tithe Barn are meant to represent a generation of young female image makers who have successfully launched their own careers through new social media platforms, knowingly harnessing and playing to the power of the camera for a more balanced field. Their artistic craft is notably more affective than the charmed documentation of celebrity culture in the Long Gallery, but a glaring disconnection from a legacy of radical feminist practices is felt when strung together for the conceit of a uniformly themed exhibition. As an exhibition, Image is most successful when it subverts the medium and confronts viewing dynamics, however, it may have benefitted from a closer comparison by mixing the groups of works to highlight the doubling of image as object and as projected persona, or claiming the two groups of photographs as provocative, yet separate propositions altogether.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Jaime Marie Davis
Place Farm, Court St, Tisbury,
Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP3 6LW