Friday, February 24, 2012


Considering James K Lowe's two exhibitions at Whanganui's McNamara Gallery Photography: Ever, ever (2010) and American Night (2011/2)

On the face of it, photography and film could have a lot in common. Both children of the nineteenth-century, both gaining their stride in the twentieth, their relationship has nevertheless remained as if they're distant cousins rather than brother and sister. Once the still picture got nailed in the later 1830s, inventors dreamed of stringing them together to mimic the experience of what's rashly called "real life". Eadweard Muybridge had a good crack at it in the later 1870s to demonstrate the physical facts of animal and human locomotion, but his project was scientific rather than artistic. Other inventors, such as Thomas Edison with his kinetoscope, tried to realise the dream, but it wasn't until the Lumiere brothers got the technical gearing right that what we know as "film" could actually happen.

Laurence Aberhart has said that photography is science's gift to art, but it applies equally to film. Both technically-oriented mediums struggled during their early years to have their legitimacy as vehicles of human artistic expression accepted - a process still incomplete, it must be said, such is the hegemony of the traditional visual mediums. It probably began happening earlier for the younger cousin, for a range of complex reasons: by the end of the 1950s it's likely that more film-goers would've accepted film as an art form before making room in the pantheon for photography - a situation that possibly still prevails, despite the ubiquity of the latter over the past couple of decades.

When Cindy Sherman started making her now-famous film stills in the later 1970s it seemed a novel idea. And slightly suspect. For the same purist reasons that kept "serious" photography black and white for so long. Modernist prescriptions tended to discourage any construction of the narrative that "film stills" imply. Telling stories was the kind of thing that got Victorian painting into such trouble, the kind of trouble that Modernism saw itself as redeeming art from. Sherman's enterprise must seem pretty ordinary for anyone under thirty-five now, but it was ground-breaking in its daring to challenge strictures against story-telling which were mostly the party line in those days. In retrospect, her work was also suggesting that perhaps photography and film were more closely related than being merely cousins. Postmodernism issued a general pardon to narrative, and for the younger generation of artists now its absence would be incomprehensible. As would be the notion that film and photography could be anything other than almost identical twins.

James K Lowe is part of that younger generation - he's just twenty-two - his first solo show, Ever, ever taking place at McNamara Gallery Photography in the middle of 2010, the second, American Night, on show over December 2011 and January 2012. In between, he represented New Zealand at the collective photography biennale PhotoQuai 2011 in Paris - a positioning not to be sneezed at, especially for someone who's barely shaken the dust of Elam off his feet.

His is a generation, too, completely at ease with the construction of photographic images, an absolute taboo under Modernism, whose purist notions of truth and honesty were the foundations of photography's claimed unique connection with "the real". In retrospect, this concept of truth was a bit simplistic and the concept of "the real" fatally literal. "The camera does not lie" was a lovely idea and a great comfort for those who used photography to preserve memory, but believing that the photographs cameras made were some kind of proof of reality was, ironically, a leap of faith. In many cases the only reality being proved was that a bunch of stuff had been photographed. Any other inferences came with terms and conditions applying.

Just about every history of photography without exception has mentioned the work of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson as a kind of cautionary tale: what might happen if the straight path of truth and honesty and "the real" were strayed from. In Naomi Rosenblum's World History of Photography (3rd ed 1997) for instance, there's reference to Rejlander's "flawed judgement", "unfortunate results", "grandiose compositions" and his sentimentality. Rejlander's Two Ways of Life and Robinson's Fading Away do have their comic aspects admittedly, but for Lowe's generation these despised allegories are part of their history and models for their practice. Oscar and Henry are up for canonisation. They certainly are the patron saints of Greg Semu's recent tableaux - two decades ago, who could've imagined that his 2010 reconstruction of Leonardo's famous but ruined fresco using Kanak models and entitled The Last Cannibal Supper would be one of fifteen finalists in the prestigious Singapore Art Museum's Signature Prize?

"Making it up" is a covert description of lying - what in Parliament must be described as "being economical with the truth" - but although Lowe is clearly making it up, there's no way he could be accused of that kind of economy. The notion of allegory has been embedded in human discourse for a very long time, suggesting the need for a parallel narrative conveying not so much literal truth as presenting a set of circumstances aligning credibly and recognisably with our own conscious experience.

Lowe's first show was accompanied by a quotation from Schopenhauer's On the Suffering of the World, a startling choice for one so young, and there was an initial temptation to regard this, at best, as bravado, at worst, as showing off. When the young Damien Hurst began exhibiting the formaldehyded shark suspended in a tank as an allegory, crusty Spectator art critic Giles Auty said he wasn't going to be told about life and death by a twenty year-old. However, the six works in Ever, ever were perfectly prefaced by the chosen text: If you imagine, in so far as it is approximately possible, the sum total of distress, pain and suffering of every kind which the sun shines upon in its course, you will have to admit it would have been much better if the sun had been able to call up the phenomenon of life as little on the earth as on the moon; and if, here as there, the surface were still a crystalline condition.

In an interview in Artzone 34 (April-July 2010), Lowe is reported to have "a profound interest in the 19th century philosophy of existentialism, which sees human existence as completely separate from the physical world". It's likely there may have been a few journalistic leaps in this description, but you'll get the general idea. Even in garbled form it usefully informs the photographs, and is itself an exact description of the nature of film: a form of human existence completely separate from the physical world. This disconnection lies at the heart of Lowe's work, his images dark in all senses, their emotional force suggesting the energy of desire trapped by a physicality whose boundaries frustrate the possibility of any real connection - physically, intellectually, emotionally - to that point of communion the human heart longs for. In lesser hands this could be a rather bleak project, but the mystery with which this photographer cloaks his imagery allows for some possibility in this predicament, and this chance offers a form of consoling redemption that might pass for hope - even amid the suppressed anguish these images so powerfully portray.

Ever, ever was also remarkable for an innovation. Four of the six works were double sided, and to view the "back" it was necessary to take the framed object off the wall. At first sight this seeming tease initially re-fired the doubt sparked by the Schopenhauer quote: Hey, is this guy for real? Let's return to the film still that is so central to Lowe's practice. His work is often compared to that of photographers such as Gregory Crewdson and Justine Kurland because the look is similar. But there is a crucial difference: their undoubtedly film-influenced imagery more resembles tableaux, whereas Lowe's photographs assume a frame before and one following in a more authentic stills' narrative. Perhaps this fractionated element of film - a series of stills masquerading as a continuous narrative - provides a key to Lowe's back-to-back photographs, and in this placement of two virtual stills he's pulling the rug on the masquerade?

American Night, the second solo show, featured an artist statement: There's a relationship with the in between - the setting and situation is all in the midst of the greater picture. A snippet of what is to come, and what's happened before you arrive. The in between is the promise of something better, or dread of something worse. It is a dark truth, and an unforgiving happiness. It is the situation where you find yourself acting for the future, even if it hurts you now. Here again is that narrative, less filmic, more emotional this time. It's as if Schopenhauer's accepted the sun had called up "the phenomenon of life", however regrettably, so that now there's no choice but to get on with it.

American Night is marginally less dark than Ever, ever in that the images largely depict dimly-lit interiors rather than a nocturnal outdoors, but without any lessening of the noir element suffusing these secular stations of the cross. There is one image common to both shows, Standing Still In The Present Time, and it's unusual in depicting a brightly lit, tumbling body of water, and for being devoid of the human actors Lowe deploys. That Still of the title is a double entendre linking it to the world of film, as the phrase The Present Time plays with notions of reality whether it be via the mediums of film or photography. Old Schopenhauer may have wished for a "crystalline condition" to save us from the human condition, but young Lowe tells a different story in his mysteriously moving pictures.

No comments:

Post a Comment