Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Review of Out of Focus: Photography at the Saatchi Gallery

Out of Focus: Photography
Saatchi Gallery
25 April – 22 July 2012

Nothing at the Saatchi Gallery is ever just about art in the traditional sense – that is, it’s never just about looking, seeing, and responding aesthetically; there’s always a conceptual element, something clever, something subversive about the works. And this is certainly the case with the current exhibition, Out of Focus, the first major photography show at the gallery in over ten years. Showcasing the work of 38 international artists – for the term “photographer” is too narrow, and alternative suggestions span such neologisms as “photoworkers”, “photoartists”, “camera artists”, and “cross-platform mediators” – old ideas about the “professional” and “amateur” are disregarded, just as are the boundaries between categories such as documentary, fashion, advertising and art.

A large number of the works turn the medium into their subject, celebrating the process of photography itself, as, for example, with Jennifer West’s filmstrips, in which images of surfers, in saturated purples, pinks and blues, are displayed like grand scale negatives, capturing the movement in a style similar to early pioneer in the field, Eadweard Muybridge, and Mariah Robertson’s 88 (2010), a unique photographic print on an entire roll of glossy archival paper, hung down the height of the wall and unrolled across the gallery floor, again reminiscent of a roll of negatives. Taking a more modern angle, Anders Clausen’s Picture 35 and Green (both 2010) present screenshots of desktops, both exploiting and satirising digital photography. At the opposite extreme, Matt Collishaw has created a number of monumental black and white and mirrored mosaics, breaking down the images, as he says, like pixels, but simultaneously using one of the oldest art forms there is.

Beyond the specifics of the medium, and stripping bare the underlying mechanisms of image-formation and image-capturing, Hannah Sawtell’s Degreasor In the Province of Accumulation 6 (2011) depicts a large close up of an eyeball and what appears to be a lens separating from it. Here, we are put in the position of actually looking at looking and becoming aware of the sensory and physical elements of the process.

More creative, and playing with illusions and trompe l’oeil, Noémie Goudal’s Les Amants (Cascade) (2009) appears, at first glance, to be a fast flowing waterfall, but, upon closer examination, reveals itself to be a man-made installation of transparent plastic sheeting. Is it still beautiful? Do we still stand there in breathtaking awe? Or do only natural realities deserve such a response? Does a created image of a created artefact deserve equivalent reverence?

The works in gallery 8, by Meredith Sparks and David Noonan, push the definitions of photography to the extreme, comprising 3D sculptures which are part photograph, part print, part fabric, part painting, part performance and part installation. Although nowhere else taken quite this far, the other rooms abound with instances of collage, ranging from Olaf Breuning’s Collage Family (2007), to Daniel Gordon’s and John Stezaker’s collaged portraits, Michele Abeles’ fragmented body parts, pots and plants, and Sohei Nishino’s dioramas of Paris, Tokyo, and New York, where aerial views blend with straight up façades to create strangely disorienting but beautifully evocative city plans.

There are, nonetheless, some more typical works, such as the landscapes of David Benjamin Sherry, and Ryan McGinley’s single coloured cave interiors, Blue Breakdown and Jonas (Molten) (both 2009), which draw the viewer in with their intensity, so that the image uncannily captures the onlooker, rather than vice versa.

Portraiture is also present in the works of Pinar Yolaçan, whose series Perishables portrays stoic British women, clad in ruffled pink blouses, disturbingly tailored out of animal flesh, and Katy Grannan’s poignantly anonymous Boulevard series, depicting American citizens of all ages and genders (sometimes this latter distinction is not so clear), wrinkled, hairy, fat and thin, proudly standing against an equalising white wall.

To me, it is these works which stand out as highlights of the show – beautiful in their simplicity and uncomplicatedness – letting the image speak for itself and reflecting a reality, whilst simultaneously creating a new one, a moment caught in time. For all the cleverness and self-examination of the main body of works on display, it is these straightforward and old fashioned – if one must reprove them thus – similitudes which seem most wholeheartedly to capture the essence of photography as an art form worthy of celebration. 


Jennifer West
Dawn Surf Jellybowl Filmstrip 1
Archival inkjet print
183 x 30 cm
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
©Jennifer West, 2011

Mariah Robertson
Unique photographic print on an entire roll of glossy archival paper
76.2 x 3,048 cm (Length of paper)
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
©Mariah Robertson, 2010

Sohei Nishino
Diorama Of New York
Light jet print
172.2 x 134 cm
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
© Sohei Nishino, 2009

Katy Grannan
Anonymous, San Francisco, Boulevard 15
2010 / printed 2010
Archival pigment print on cotton rag paper, mounted to Plexiglas
139.7 x 104.1 cm
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
©Katy Grannan, 2010

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