March 4: How exciting it is to see the work of young photographers!
Monash Gallery of Art, 860 Ferntree Gully Road, Wheelers Hill, Victoria here in Australia opens TOPshots! 2016-17 today. It is the ninth year in which they have devoted gallery space to a showcase of photomedia artwork produced by students studying the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subjects of Art, Media and Studio Arts.
Is there an evident relationship that these 21 students have with art history and especially the history and contemporary manifestations of photography?
Secondary students are exposed to a range of historical and contemporary examples by their teachers, and in their own research. With the best of intentions, the exposure has benefits, to inspire them not to reinvent the wheel for example. It also has disbenefits, if done without consideration of teenage sensitivities; the loss of artistic innocence and their belief in their own uniqueness and individuality, a sense of inferiority in terms of technical skill, and a tendency to imitate in order to catch the reflection of the limelight on celebrity artists.
A case in point in relation to the reception of preceding art is Pixel Shift by Rhiannon Gamble who studied at Norwood Secondary College, which on first glance is a reference to the joiners of David Hockney which he made initially on a square format Polaroid camera.
But that appearance is deceptive. In fact this work is a photo-relief which makes quite different and more contemporary references. To Gamble the tessellated images represent a kind of extreme pixellation, or noise. The gallery helpfully includes artist statements, and in part, Gamble has this to say about her intentions:
I want to explore what happens to the images we project of ourselves online. They say something always gets lost in translation, especially when filtered through technology. Glitches in decoding can change the intended message when sending and receiving. But I think that is when new creative representations can appear.
There is a subtext to the phrase ‘They say’; it infers a prevailing, older generation’s perception, against which it is thrilling that Gamble regards the glitchiness of digital communication as a creative opportunity which she embraces. She does so on her own terms.
For many, and certainly those of Gamble’s generation the mobile phone is a toy, an entertainment, as much as a means of social communication on a personal scale and as a social ‘broadcaster’.
In reference to the gridded structure of the digital image she has combined a number of square-cropped details, separate photographs of her reclining teenage subject whose self-absorption, and disengagement from the photographer, is registered on the face. Parts of head, from separate takes, spread over a dozen or more square ‘pixels’ in the overall montage in a 10 x 10 matrix, but with an intelligent embellishment:
I wanted to keep a home-made feel and sense of play; the idea of using wooden blocks as pixels fitted well. By playing with scale and staggering depth, the image resolves from jumbled noise depending on viewing angle and distance.
This sculptural addition, then, is entirely in keeping with the sense of the piece so eloquently articulated in that statement. The differing height of each block implies that there are layers of information arriving with differing densities and at varying signal rates across the matrix, but crucially they modulate the viewers experience of the image just as Gamble describes. Furthermore the screen of the phone that the teenage subject is toying with, which covers as many squares as the face, itself reiterates the image in a clever mise-en-abyme. This is a sophistication which it is encouraging to see in a secondary student’s work!
Emily Roden is also concerned with mobile phone culture, in this instance dealing with the phenomenon of the ‘selfie’ by summoning up the myth of Narcissus, represented as a contour-drawn figure. He appears amongst blurred forms of passing crowds in city environments. Roden’s drawings of the self-obsessed youth in various selfie postures are acetate etchings, with the incised lines left inked and placed over the photographs, which themselves are printed high-key to provide a distinguishing contrast for the black linear element. He is thus represented as being absorbed in his own myth making, while, as Roden notes “motion blur photography also demonstrates how he is ‘stuck still’ in a world of motion, only acknowledging his own existence.”
It is disturbing to note that government schools are so disproportionately represented in TOPshots. Of 572 secondary schools in Victoria, 317 are government-run and 255 are ‘Independent’ or Catholic (privately-run), and of 68,888 Year 12 students, 45,071 go to government schools, while 14,933 go to Catholic schools (some of which are quite ‘exclusive’) and only 8,883 go to the more expensive private schools. Of the 21 Topshots students 7 go to government schools while 14 go to private or Catholic colleges.
Does this mean that the standard of work coming out of government schools is poor in comparison to that of the private sector? Assessment of creative art is difficult especially at this level, with numbers of criteria having to be applied. Secondary students are neither full-blown artists, nor are they as relatively thick-skinned and opinionated as tertiary art students. Their work needs to be considered across a spectrum of expectations.
A comparison may help to elucidate this. I don’t wish to denigrate any secondary student or single them out, but what is a consideration is the expense of art materials and the cost of presenting work of which any artist is only too conscious.
Both Emily Roden (above) and Emily Joyce combine printmaking techniques with photography. Conceptually their work is on a par even though they deal with quite different subject matter. Roden uses acetate etching as an overlay, while Joyce uses the rarer, more complex and expensive technique of photogravure and alternates the two media in display. Their methods are appropriate expressions of their ideas. However, a teacher with knowledge of photogravure is a highly skilled specialist and would be difficult to find in a tertiary institution these days and certainly least expected in a secondary school.
Though both students are recognised and are worthy of selection for TOPshots, does having access to a rarified technique and specialist teaching lend an advantage in the case of a Methodist Ladies’ College student compared to one from Wheelers Hill Secondary College?
Photogravure, a favourite of the Pictorialists and now used to atmospheric effect by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, serves to make the fruit bats in Joyce’s series blacker, all the more foreboding, to “to create density and texture’ as she notes, especially when interleaved with the light on dark of the ballerina. Joyce does not mention any influence of the popular 2010 American psychological thriller-horror film Black Swan, or Fukase Masahisa‘s ravens, but says she is inspired by Australian artist Martin King’s bird etching, whose works have been acquired in the Methodist Ladies’ College MLC Aquisitive Art Exhibition in 2003 and 2004.
If only every school could provide access to an art collection that includes significant Australians!
On the other hand, the students’ statements about their work range from being lucid, well considered and heartfelt, to being vague generalisations. An attitude that an artwork doesn’t need a ‘meaning’, that it is ‘up to the audience’ to connect it with any idea they like, unfortunately prevails amongst some in the art teacher fraternity, as it does amongst lesser artists doomed forever to the sidelines.
Lexie McLeod‘s untitled photograph is up there with Martin Parr for saturated colour and has a sense of humour to match; the comedic, smiling pair of goggles at centre stage and the giggling ripples echoing across this blue field need no further explanation, but that is not to say the photograph is devoid of meaning or emotional effect…it is undeniably ticklish!
Jessica Phillips freely acknowledges the influence of a young American, Timothy Pakron’s Silver drips series. Pakron is an artist very early in his career who has yet to have a solo exhibition, not found in Jessica’s government school’s collection, if it has one, but no doubt discovered in an internet search.
Phillips adopts his technique of hand-painting with developer, which he applies sparingly for a linear and minimal effect. With attention to the emotional cues of her portraits, she makes it her own to produce one of the rawest and most affecting images in the show.
That a simple, direct approach often triumphs is borne out in Gabriel Menzies‘ reference to Botticelli, conjured with the minimum of artifice, to portray a transgender subject, likewise re-gendering the title from ‘Venus’ to ‘Eros’.
The work has all the confidence and power of a Pipilotti Rist statement. The art reference is thrown in with apparent casualness (but reinforced with just the right touches and colour coordination) to give the visual declaration of a heartfelt position on pansexuality the floor. Such candour is thrilling, so welcome to see from a student at the point of departing (a government) school and launching their career.
This is an excitement that extends to all of those in this exhibition; where will we see them next?
Showing at MGA alongside TOPshots is a survey of the work of Wes Stacey. Born in 1941 in Sydney he studied at East Sydney Tech. He was then a sincere and devout Christian. What school he went to as a teenager I don’t know, but over the years his beliefs changed radically to embrace a broader philosophy. So it will be with these young people; they will change and mature.
After leaving the Tech, Stacey worked as a graphic designer and photographer in Sydney, then in London from 1963-66. In the late 60s he worked as a magazine photographer based in Sydney then freelanced as a commercial photographer 1969-75, and in the mid-seventies he travelled around Australia in a camper-van, eventually settling in his own bush block to drop out of the rat race and to begin photographing on his own terms.
With David Moore and others, Stacey helped establish the Australian Centre for Photography in 1973-4.
It’s in the nature of artist culture that a career is built on connections between artists and that in later life successful artists go on to nurture younger ones. We all remember and appreciate those who encouraged us and some, after the hard work, excitement and recognition of a long career, happily extend the favour to others. Some become hard-bitten, disillusioned and selfish, but that is certainly not the case with Wes Stacey, whose work bespeaks a generous love of humanity and nature.
Monash Gallery of Art is one example of the many institutions worldwide that have been set up through this spirit of ‘what comes around goes around’ that provides a venue and publicity for initiatives like TOPshots.
MGA therefore also acknowledges a photographer like Stacey by including his work in their collection and with this survey show.