Uncommonly Intriguing – Uncommon Ground@Flowers Gallery

You can also read this review on the Flowers Gallery website: http://news.flowersgallery.com/

When Chris Littlewood, curator of the photographic exhibition Uncommon Ground, told me the gallery generally explored environmental issues, my heart sank. I wasn’t sure I could look at more photographs of beached whales, or of industrial chimneys puffing pollution into the air. John Pfahl said all that in his series Smoke twenty years ago. Instead, I found a series of photographs chronicling the sublime, the mundane, the ridiculous and the transcendental in all their possible combinations, and often where you would least expect to find them.

The exhibition’s broad remit, to look at environments including ‘natural ecosystems, urban and suburban spaces, domestic interiors, industrial landscapes and even political arenas’ and, above all, the key idea of ‘environmental intervention’ gracefully  explains the inclusion of pieces you might otherwise struggle to connect.

David Spero invades domestic spaces like bathrooms and dance halls with abstract minimalism, stringing straight lines between small round balls to create geometric shapes; the tension between to two spaces is striking, and in the end, sinister, as those little balls sit uninvited and alien, intruders with a hidden agenda. Contrast this artistically altered environment with the documentary in Robert Polidori’s large scale photograph of the slums of Mumbai, candy shop pretty from a distance, filled with the very real detritus of human life close up, and you’ll see both sides of the concept of environmental intervention.

As another example of an artistically altered natural environment, Scarlett Hooft Graafland

White, 2004

takes the biscuit with her, literally, cheeky photographs of her haunches draped over huts in harsh landscapes. These straddle (pun intended) the line between photography, performance and sculpture in the surrealist tradition. I dare you not to smile.

Yet another double take is offered by Chris Engman’s Equivalence, 2009, which places a paper print of the sky inside a wooden structure set against the sky, only a tear here and a wrinkle there betraying the trick. John Maclean’s photographs, on the other hand, offer a hyper-real take on natural beauty, every line and colour defined. But here, again, you have to think twice; his triptych Walker, Tree, Zoo, 2012, seems like a celebration of nature; but the leaves on the walker’s shirt are only a print, the green tree grows, impossibly, out of frozen ground, and the butterfly in the artificial environment of a zoo hovers over a plate of fruit left there by man.

Edward Burttynsky presents a tour de force in his stunning Rock of Ages #4, 1991, with its textured quarry face falling into eerily green and still waters. It may be the only photograph included from the nineties, but some oldies are still goodies. The title says it all.

Andy Goldworthy’s series Gutter Water – Night to Day, 2010, chronicling a day in the life of a city-dwelling puddle, has an epheremal beauty to it, but his Street Dirt – Afternoon, 2010, perhaps an intentional exercise the futility of sweeping dirt, left me feeling pretty futile.

Also less successful, in my opinion, are Alaistair Levy’s Proposals for Everyday Living, 2008 and Raven Smith’s prints from the series, The Worst Day of My Life, 2006. These are playful pieces, the first inserting colourful pastels in unexpected places, an air vent or a phone box, the second stuffing people uncomfortably into urban items, tubing, a box, or broken polystyrene. In a different context they might raise  a wry smile; however, against the depth of meaning in other work on show, the joke falls a little flat.

Tom Lovelace (isn’t that a great name?) has two series on show, as unlike each other as it’s possible to be. In Preparation, 2011, photographs pairs of feet balanced precariously on various objects. Whatever, I say.

Forms in Green, 2011

Forms In Green, 2011, wiped the ‘whatever’ off my face. These photograms, the correct term, rather than photographs, were created by the light falling on noticeboards in shop windows over time. The Rothko-esque effect is something special, and it’s a relief to see found objects that actually mean something – here documenting a process of creation – rather than being just bits of masking tape, wire or old shoe boxes that the viewer is supposed to imbue with false profundity.

This exhibition, I hope you’ve already gleaned, is on the cutting edge of contemporary photography. The multi-layered, many-stranded meanings here illuminate my favourite quote on the raison d’êtret of photography: ‘A photo is able to capture a moment that people can’t always see.’ (Harry Callahan)
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About Mary-Claire W

Writer, reader and art fiend View all posts by Mary-Claire W

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