November 30: Spring: it’s about flowers and opulence.
Today sees the launch in Sydney of the exhibition by Joseph McGlennon at Michael Reid gallery in leafy 44 Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay, in New South Wales. At the same time exhibitions continue at Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne; Beyond Eden by Polixeni Papapetrou and Glamour stakes by Martin Parr. It was only last year that McGlennon won the prestigious $25,000 William and Winifred Bowness Photography prize which is exhibited each year at the same Monash Gallery of Art. His winning image features in the new show at Michael Reid.
McGlennon’s breathtakingly sumptuous image pays homage to the botanical illustrators of Joseph Banks Florilegium, a collection of copperplate engravings of drawings by artist Sydney Parkinson of plants collected in Madeira, Brazil, Tierra del Fuego, the Society Islands, New Zealand, Australia and Java. These he made for Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander while all were on board HM Bark Endeavour during Captain James Cook’s voyage (1768-1771). On return to London, Banks hired 5 artists to create watercolours of Parkinson’s drawings and 18 engravers to create the copperplate line engravings from the 743 completed watercolours at a considerable cost. The Florilegium was not printed in Banks’ lifetime and he bequeathed the plates to the British Museum
Clearly McGlennon has a formidable precedent to which to be paying homage given the quality of Banks’ Florilegium. He, like Banks was, is British, a Scottish national, later resident in Adelaide. He exhibited in 1985 alongside other South Australians who had been contemporaries at art school, Fiona Hall and Mark Kimber in Where the Dark Eye Glances. Until a return in about 2010 to full time art photography he worked in design and marketing in Europe and Asia, heading creative marketing teams for companies such as Nokia and Audi. Immediately his photography made a mark; a portrait from this series Bombay Wall, made over four years along the same stretch of sea wall, hung as a finalist in the 2011 Head On Portrait Prize.
To look at Florilegium #1 is to see that it is a complex digital confection quite different from the individual images of Bombay Wall. Macaws, flowers and the exotic landscape are compiled from photographs taken in his travels in Madagascar, Tahiti and Singapore. Like the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ floral painters, McGlennon made images of each flower in the fullness of bloom so that they appear at their most flourishing despite flowering at different times of the year. “I approach it like a painting,” says McGlennon of his work. “There’s probably a hundred layers in this photo,” made using a Hasselblad medium format digital camera. He sketches his ideas before setting out to create the scenes he envisages.
The background of this image appears pristine, uninhabited by humans and is steamily tropical, volcanic and fertile, but the shadows on the clouds come from a sun behind and to the left of the viewer, while the mountains and Moon are lit from the rear right. The birds and flowers are lit by a broad source of light from front left; though feasibly they are in the shade of the jungle it is not quite clear from where that soft light is cast. Focus is impossibly sharp throughout.That the montages do not quite pass close inspection for consistency hardly matters; their hyperrealism confirms that they are pure fantasies, intended for our delectation of every lovingly crafted detail.
These pictures are not real. Annually, the Indonesians are setting fire to more of the rainforests of the islands, and Madagascar is one of the world’s environmental disasters where every year as much as a third of Madagascar burns. Fires set for land-clearing and pastureland spread into adjacent wildlands, causing damage to the island’s unique ecosystems. With its rivers running blood red and staining the surrounding Indian Ocean, astronauts have remarked that it looks like Madagascar is bleeding to death.
I cannot see McGlennon mentioning these environmental issues in interviews so we can only look at others of his images for clues, which confirm that these are concerns he does hold. His work is easily found on the Michael Reid website, and include series depicting the thylacine, revived and disporting its carnivorous self in natural habitats (2013) and the kangaroo, looking a little bewildered at being transplanted into the Scottish hillsides (2010), where stags he has photographed for another series (2015) from taxidermy specimens also graze.
However, any environmental message may not prick the conscience of corporate or wealthy purchasers of these images. The paintings of Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606-1694) and other Dutch artists of the still life were consumed by the burghers of a rapaciously colonialist nation oblivious to the harm that the comforts of their society inflicted on the East Indies from where McGlennon’s raw material comes.
At Monash Gallery of Art more flowers abound. Polixeni Papapetrou is a Melbourne-based photographic artist who suffered recent serious illness and yet is defiantly prolific. The exhibition brings together three recent bodies of work by Papapetrou: Lost psyche (2014), It’s all about me (2016) and Eden (2016).
Papapetrou adheres steadfast to the rigidly central, frontal compositions she started making in the 1980s in documentary portraits of Elvis fans and other sub-cultures distinguished by their attire, and eschews photographic artistry in the form of special lighting or varied angles of view. This can grow tiresome, but after so many years one can see a purpose in her stubborn consistency. After becoming the mother of a daughter and son she staged images of her children in costumes and masks against landscape and painted backgrounds. Their depiction of role-playing and performance evolves as it follows the development and maturing of her children and they often reveal their awkwardness and self-consciousness despite, or because of, the masks.
Now in her late teenage years, daughter Olympia and her friends appear in the 2016 series Eden in floral dresses (one image is titled Flora) and against backgrounds bursting with blooms. That the emergence from the perplexing teenage years brings a flowering of one’s true self might be a cliché, but one cannot deny the joy this artist takes in this emergence, especially to see Olympia’s face again after so many years hidden under the masks of previous series, regarding the camera on her own terms in a manner that reveals the relationship of this particular mother and daughter.
In a bold move MGA sets the work of Martin Parr in a gallery alongside Papapetrou. He is well known for the caustic humour of his depictions of naff British holidaymakers, but here turns it on racegoers at Ascot and at Melbourne horse tracks in two series of Luxury. The presence of flowers here is incidental to the antics of overindulged adults, but against Papapetrou’s work one cannot help noticing them; shoved into planters and wilted in the heat, crassly imitated in ghastly chintz and gauze by milliners or crucified on gents’ lapels…
These blooms do nothing to brighten these social climbing but dowdy and sozzled punters in the corporate tents. Parr jockeys for personal-space-invading belly-button camera angles, zaps his unsuspecting victims with on-camera flash and then strategically oversaturates their gaudiness in printing. He savages them to the point where one fears for his safety in court; we are clearly not expected to feel anything more than schadenfreude. But like his countryman Hogarth, ultimately Parr’s message is intended for us, for our own self-reflecton on the cost of luxury in the spirit of the title of McGlennon’s first Australian exhibition Where the Dark Eye Glances which is a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s 1835 To One in Paradise, which begins:
Thou wast that all to me, love,
For which my soul did pine–
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine,
All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers,
And all the flowers were mine.
Ah, dream too bright to last!