January 15: Today Castlemaine Art Museum opens two exhibitions, photocollage and painting in Groove is in the Heart by Minna Gilligan (born 29.11.1990), and ceramics in World Without World by Michael Doolan.
The Gallery website includes this information; “Gilligan maintains an illustration practice as an artist for New York-based online magazine ROOKIE […] and is a member of artist collective The Ardorous [sic], curated by Canadian photographer Petra Coll.”
It took a little searching, but I find that “Petra Coll” is a typo; she’s actually Petra Collins who is a New York based photographer. The collective Arduous (a clever moniker meaning ‘hard work’ but perhaps simultaneously inferring adoration) was formed online and Collins used these internet connections to assemble the book Babe (2015) “An art Book Curated by Petra Collins featuring over 30 Female Artists from around the world” published by Prestel/Random House, which was among The Times Magazine’s Photo Department’s Favorite Photo Books of 2015. It includes this image by Minna Gilligan.
Also in 2015, Gilligan published her first book, Time After Time (Hardie Grant Australia/ Rizzoli New York), as well as her Poems, Prayers and Promises, a 100 copy limited edition artist book presenting a selection of poems paired with new painterly collages, one of a series of artist’s book commissions for the National Gallery of Victoria’s Melbourne Art Book Fair, 1-3 May 2015. Time After Time draws on her blog on which she has posted for several years.
I don’t feel qualified to talk about Gilligan’s painting since I no longer understand that medium, but since she uses photography in conjunction with paint it is worth reflecting on its relation to the use of appropriated imagery in social media, especially in Pinterest but also on Instagram and Twitter, in ‘mood boards’ and even in computer ‘wallpaper’. In those contexts the photograph is appropriated or ‘Pinned’ because it is instantly available and because it might communicate an emotion, ideal or concept. So why does Gilligan use 1960s and 1970s photographs in her artworks? Let’s look at her show.
The glowing, paintbox colours Gilligan uses are overwhelmingly bright and upbeat. The Castlemaine Art Museum curators went all out to support the work by painting all the walls of the Stoneman Gallery in analogous colours, adding a frieze of flower decals in contrasting colours and printing the wall labels on coloured paper.
The works displayed were digital prints on polyvinyl pinned in the corners and allowed to drape, some even extending onto the floor [apologies: the saturated colour of the wall has defeated the auto colour balance of my borrowed iPhone 4s].
These were accompanied by a large textile patchwork (left) which set up the idea that the works are fabrics at the same time that they were pictures, extending the process of earlier paintings by Gilligan made on textiles already printed with a pattern. Her interest in fashion is embedded in this approach, which thus unifies all of these three interests; the found image, textile and fashion. All contribute to a blissed-out, upbeat worldview which is a second (or third) generation take on the psychedelia of her parents’ childhood.
A neat grid of A4 collages was found to one side of the gallery entrance, watched over by a chair. I’ve photographed oblique details into the light so that the collaged nature of the work is obvious. It appeared that the background papers to which the photographic elements are adhered are perhaps in at least some cases pre-printed from photographs of larger paintings by Gilligan, with additional overpainting and mark-making, some in impasto acrylic. The found imagery is drawn from a number of sources including colour fashion catalogues of the 70s and 60s family snaps in monochrome. Gilligan writes in her blog about using online photo libraries for some.
These collages in turn were scanned and massively enlarged, reproductions with values of colour and sharpness faithfully preserved, to make the high resolution images for several of the polyvinyl mural works for this show, including the signature piece used in the show’s promotion. Thus Gilligan’s initial creative effort starts broad-brush then is engaged with intensively on an intimate, magazine scale, before being output ‘larger than life’ for exhibition.
Let’s return to Gilligan’s image (the untitled collage at the top of this post) that is reproduced in Petra Collins’ Babe.
The appropriated elements are the main subject, a young girl with a cheerful, one might even say triumphant, but modest, expression sits leaning forward with clasped hands dressed in a blue paisley-patterned bib-neck dress. A gilt rococo frame surrounds her torso and that is distorted by the protrusion of her shoulders in front of its sides, while her hands nestle behind its lower portion. She may, or may not, be sitting at a glass-topped bamboo table (hard to tell as it may have been added from another photograph) and the overall setting is a portico or glassed-in porch or verandah. Pasted on top of that layer is an image of a profusion of prize ribbons on coat hangers, apparently the cause of her happiness, or perhaps the reward for it. The whole work is overpainted in transparent fluorescent orange, magenta, green and blue, with a zigzag of impasto pink against a light sky blue highlighting the top right hand corner.
I did not get the impression that anything ironic or satirical was intended by Gilligan’s display as it was genuinely uplifting. Her blog supports the impression, and her work has been attractive to Petra Collins for that reason.
Is it because one of my daughters has just entered the teen years that I find Collins work so affecting? She relates on her blog about an incident in which took a picture of her unshaven ‘bikini line’ and after uploading it online had it censored and her account suspended by Instagram, a subsidiary of Facebook. Her justifiably angry response was picked up by Huffington Post on their blog under the headline Why Instagram Censored My Body, in which she says I’m used to seeing women being degraded, slut shamed, harassed for what they look like…I don’t want to be used to this.
Her litany of the ugly and hateful offences towards women, she points out, is propagated endlessly online. As a father it makes me fear for my children, knowing that the hatred of women has probably never been more overt because it is supported by a mindlessly capitalist hegemony that sees them as commodities. Sexual abuse by men is something I suffered as an pre-teen, and I am male; how much greater is its threat to young girls?
So it is heartening to read that the ethos of Babe is “Strong. Independent. Powerful – and ready to take the world,” in Petra Collins own words (and that is the experience I have of my daughters and their mother in this house) and she adds that the book is an “all-accepting, affirming, distinctly female point of view that teens and young women everywhere can respond to.” The book images the spectrum of the ‘babe’; periods, sexting, angst over body types, cuteness and fluff, camaraderie and anger, reclaiming the word from males who would put down the young person – not a child yet not a woman – to whom the term belongs. That is, in America…’babe’ is not a term used amongst my daughters’ friends for one of their own. That is the hesitation I have about this book. While the contributors are international, the perspective is ultimately US-centric.
Petra Collins’ own work is in photography and film, and I have little hesitation in endorsing her fly-on-the-wall visual descriptions of teenage female life. Her series 24-Hour Psycho depicts girls in tears.
The prompt is screen-based no doubt, an extended session of binge-watching, as is hinted by the lighting, but oh, how accurately these images depict the upheavals, the angst and distress of this period of life! The cramped space, the acid hot-and-cold fluorescence and the stalking telephoto evoke unbearable tensions (between breakaway teenager and hovering parent?), but also convey an irreducible ego-centricity.
Collins other series, displayed on her website are nearly all equally powerful and penetrating. She bills herself as ‘an educator’, and if that means she is a secondary teacher that might account for the extraordinary access she has had to some of her subjects. She recounts in this May 1, 2015 interview with Ted Stansfield in 10 Magazine;
…there’s this one photo that made me realise…what I want to do and made me see what I could capture, it was in my room or my sister’s room and [she and] three of…her friends were sitting on her bed and we’re all talking and talking about boys and kind of dark subjects or not nice subjects and the room was really bright at the time, it was bright and sunny. But when I got the photos back I was like wow, you can really feel in the photo what I was feeling and what the girls were feeling and that came across instead of what it was actually like in real life and so that kind of pushed me to start taking more photos like that and start documenting.
She cites Lauren Greenfield’s Girl Culture as an influence, but her work is less strident, and because like Gilligan and the other contributors to Babe, she is still young herself (twenty-four years old this year), she is more empathetic and alive to the unspoken language of this ‘culture’; really a crisis of change.