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July 31, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Photospace

CATCHING ICARUS – Ellie Smith, GROUND WORK – Kathryn Ivory
Photospace Gallery, 37 Courtenay Place, 14th July to 14th August

I’ve been trying to write about as many different gallery spaces in Wellington as possible in this column. Vigilant readers will note that there has been hardly any repetition in galleries, which just goes to show the wide range of art spaces in Wellington that are ripe for reviewing. So I decided to go along to Photospace (it’s on Courtenay place, next to the Sahara café, up some stairs) just to mix it up a little, and continue my intrepid exploration of galleries in our fair city.

I’m feeling a bit disillusioned with photography at the moment. I can’t remember the last time I went to a photography show that floored me, or at least made me work and think hard. There were a few good photographic works in Islanded at the Adam Art Gallery earlier in the year. I think that the ones I liked the most were from overseas artists. But mostly I’ve just been a bit bored by it all, compared to some of the great installation and performance pieces that I’ve been able to write about this year.

There are two shows on at Photospace at the moment. The first, Catching Icarus by Ellie Smith is a lovely little show that brings together a delicate and nuanced collection of photographs, which speak well to each other in the small space. Smith has said that “this series of work continues to reference the family photograph and record moments that explore issues of uncertainty.” There is definitely a sense of unease in many of the works. Images of children having fun are tinged with disquiet. A small boy approaches the camera, an almost malevolent expression on his face, and behind him a girl’s leg pokes out of the water like a shark fin, approaching sneakily from behind. Smith has cleverly manipulated what should be the most innocent of photographic images, children swimming at the beach, and reveals unsettling intricacies in their relationship, and more importantly their relationship with the photographer.

The images are disparate. Some are photos of people, mostly children. Others are blurry shots of landscapes, or parts of bodies, or bubbling water. The unifying aspect is a sense of losing something, or that a section of the images are missing. These are not concrete, confident images. They are aware of their absences and the mistranslations that may occur when others are viewing them. Their meaning becomes adaptable and I think therefore much more interesting. Smith says, “When I make photos I wonder what I am really seeing…what clues are here that I am missing? Sometimes I get a glimpse at the tragic future, then the terror fades and I see what was always there – a child playing in a shallow pond.”

Ground Work by Kathryn Ivory is a different kettle of fish. Ivory is a Wellington based artist who works in photography and other media. Her show is situated just round the corner in a little alcove Ivory’s work comprises of large textual photographs of concrete sections, and holes where concrete spikes used to be. These are highly detailed, and seem almost like landscapes, or aerial photographs of wide open spaces. They are interesting in that they are pictures of very small spaces, minute and very functional areas, but yet they also made me think of vast expanses; of infinite areas of land. They show an interest in materials, in the construction of spaces, and also perhaps how people relate to these spaces. They play very heavily on absence and presence. I think that they are as much about the texture of the concrete and stone as they are about the emptiness of the dark fissures in between.

The press release says that these images are ‘symbolic’ which in itself a problematic word. I always find it frustrating and boring when artists create works which too overtly refer to other things, be that to concrete objects or to more abstract emotions. At first I did find these works hard to engage with. There are only a few and I couldn’t quite understand what the artist was trying to reveal, or explore. I felt like I needed more or some sort of variety to animate these works.

One point of interest though was the inversion, where the concrete would normally be, on the ground and under your feet, to up on the wall opposite you. Art theorist Leo Steinberg was very interested in this idea in the 1970s with famous painter Jackson Pollock being of particular interest to him. Pollock used to paint on the ground, by flicking paint onto the unstretched canvas, then would shift the painting at right angles up onto the gallery wall. In Ground Work Katherine Ivory is similarly interested in this shift of focus, from floor to wall, and what it might mean for how we perceive images. Certainly, in this case it causes the viewer to examine the space and texture of objects that we wouldn’t normally give a second thought, expanding them to become something different, and entirely divorced from their original purpose.

I liked these shows, and Photospace performs an important role in representing and exhibiting Wellington based photographers, but I wasn’t blown away. I think I’ve lost some faith in the medium of photography, and I am waiting for an artist to surprise and challenge me. I’ll let you know when this happens.

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