John Kippin: Based on a True Story: Works 1984-2018 / Reviewed by Helen James / 19.09.18
The new exhibition space for the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art feels nautical, perhaps like the engine room of a ship. A steely grey interior is punctuated by pillars dotted strategically across the gallery, seeping industrial connections into a room without portholes. Once inside, the Sunderland location drifts away and visitors are transported into the contemporary art landscape. I could be anywhere in the world looking at pictures on walls but from certain parts of the gallery the open door reveals the environmental features that I wandered past to arrive here: coffee tables in the nearby café collapse into two dimensions in front of the clear facade of the National Glass Centre. The side of this transparent building flanks the water channel of the Port of Sunderland: the River Wear. Our gallery is cradled here and contains photographic works from across the career of John Kippin.
Collectively the exhibition is a web of observations that are woven together to tell tales about landscapes and hint at the stories indelibly etched into places. The carefully crafted photographs often contain embedded words that challenge political rhetoric and the normal analysis of industrial decline and slap the viewer into thinking a little deeper about the depiction of place. Landscape features are laid bare, formally offered to the viewer to survey and stirred up by the placement of a short word or phrase.
Kippin found the portrait in the landscape. Mostly North Eastern English landscapes but elsewhere also features; most notably and recently Rome. Strong observations are scooped together to establish a gentle visual dialect that runs through the pictures, like an accent, anchoring the images in one artistic vision. The stark effect of juxtaposition is expertly employed to capture decaying objects or re-purposed architecture for visual and cultural analysis by any visiting onlooker.
In a quartet of images, hung closely together the images sing a sad song: a black and white picture stripped of picturesque colour warns of the realism ahead: marooned submarines rest like beached whales under a horizon punctuated by cranes next to an image that illustrates a fear for nature, finally a group of kids raft through a maritime waterscape carefully navigating their basic water craft towards the safety of the harbour wall and their unsure lives beyond. This photograph could be a still from Swallows and Amazons, a re-cast, re-located re-politicised version. Sometimes the visual elements are accompanied by artfully selected words, chosen with the clipped skill of a poet, and embedded in the photographs to carve yet more gentle opinion into the image to tease and invite viewers into Kippin’s thoughts about the world. The beautiful curating of this show does not painstakingly introduce project-after-project, bracketing titles and years, but it flows like eyes across a landscape that has taken decades to observe.
The North Eastern landscape offers a taste of many things: the remnants of a huge industrial past, Jurassic cliffs, dark forests cloaked with the clearest of skies, crazy seas that crash and thrash to threaten brave fisherman and tempt crazy surfers. There are tired streets where the sorry flotsam of life washes up near to beautiful buildings that are re-purposed to function once more. It has cute towns, wild orchids, sad streets, hopscotch squares chalked on pavements and baby boomers in flash cars on a coastal ice cream mission. Angry faces too, football shirts, topless dads and smart mums; flamenco ready.
Doesn’t everywhere? What elements are unique and capable of becoming identified with a visual accent that travels through the photographs of this region? Kippin sits next to some fine photographers such as Ian Macdonald, Markéta Luskačová and Graham Smith who have harvested images that are poignant to this region, geographically. The North East runs like a flavour through the motif-rich photographs of John Kippin, that deserve more words than mine, because his work is relevant beyond this region; it is about landscapes.
This exhibition offers a welcome overview of his epic contribution to the history of photography. The exhibition tightly knits together his vision and pokes images from past projects into focus once more and situates them next to more contemporary projects about places far away. Always embedded in some location and echoing a sense of documentary Kippin has tripped into the art world by mixing tale, observation and poetic interpretation to establish what John Taylor once beckoned our attention to as a visual ‘bad language’ an anti-aesthetic that willfully departed from the picturesque by playing with its very conventions.
This timely monographic exhibition is accompanied by a substantial publication that importantly brings together many of Kippin’s projects into one book and is interspersed with wise words and useful commentaries by key voices that have percolated questions, observed his practice and supported his vision over the course of his career and usefully includes the wise words of John Taylor on ‘John Kippin’s Bad Language’. Read it.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Helen James
 See ‘John Kippin’s Bad Language’ introductory essay by John Taylor in the 1995 catalogue Nostalgia for the Future that was published by The Photographers’ Gallery.
John Kippin: Based on a True Story: Works 1984-2018 continues until 23 September 2018 at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland. The publication John Kippin: Based On A True Story is published by Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld (2018) and edited by Alistair Robinson.
Installation images courtesy NGCA below:
Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art
c/o National Glass Centre
Liberty Way, Sunderland SR6 0GL