August 26: Should some subjects be forbidden to the camera?
As we’re in lockdown again, I miss going in to Castlemaine Art Museum for this week at least, but I contemplate a work on show there that caused me mixed reactions at first, but which has firmed now as outstanding. It is part of an evolving display which Jennifer Long, its volunteer curator, has cannily entitled Cloudy – a few isolated showers, which permits assembling very disparate works across a range of media and eras, because skies feature in so much art, including photography by Katrin Koenning (*1978), and paintings of photographs by Lyndell Brown (*1961) and Charles Green (*1953).
Going to Koenning’s website I discover that on her ‘news’ page there is a link to a book Photo No Nos by Aperture. That’s relevant to my first reaction to her subject; suicide. The book is just a list of things to avoid photographing – such as sunsets, gondolas, tyres swings etc and these are interspersed with quotations from photographers some of whom ignore the admonitions and explain why they do so. Perhaps Katrin is one of those quoted; if so she is not included in the preview provided on the publisher’s site.
In fact she has photographed many, if not all of the taboo subjects.
Because of its verisimilitude we expect that the products of photography will be OF something. On one level I agree the there should be a prohibition on some subjects – graveyards and seagulls are two that are my pet aversions- as some things have been seen just too many times. But it is the novice or the early learner of photography that such restrictions should target – in an effort to get them to avoid the dreaded “cliché”. Curiously, in France (where photography was invented) cliché, as derived from the term for a printing plate, can mean a photograph, a negative or a snapshot, though it doubles as a term meaning the same as we do in English.
Koenning does not shoot clichés, but transfigures them. She demonstrates that the thing in the viewfinder is not important for itself, but for what it is about. That’s not news of course; Minor White famously pronounced that we should photograph things “not only for what they are but for what else they might be,” to expand on the theory of the “Equivalent” articulated in the late 1920s by Alfred Stieglitz and leading to abstraction.[see: John Pultz, “Equivalence, Symbolism, and Minor White’s Way into the Language of Photography,” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Publ. Princeton University Art Museum 1980, Vol. 39, No. 1/2 (1980), pp. 28-39] In Katrin’s case that meaning is transmitted by her treatment, accent and emphasis, in the image of the thing, though it remains still legibly “that thing”.
In this case – her work Dear Chris at CAM- some of the photographs she uses are not even her own, being pre-empted by chronology. The person who is the subject of the series, Chris, is no longer here as she reveals in her wall notes;
On the 5th of August 2010, at twenty-nine years, Chris ended his own life. Husband to Alana, my cousin, he was family.
His death came almost exactly a year after he attempted suicide in one of the grand State Forests of his native Queensland, Australia. Something went wrong, or maybe he clung on, back then. After four days in a forest so deep that family and friends all but failed to find him, he walked himself to help. I’m not sure when exactly his depression first showed face. I never knew him any different. Highly intelligent, he was trapped within himself, a cage with no apparent way out. He fought for years; it was a front-row battle that lacked a level playing field. He spoke about it, you know, about the drugs that were supposed to make him feel ok, about his state of mind, about all the doctors. Often though he’d sit there in silence. He dreamt of being a pilot, of doing other things.
From the family archive we are presented with round-cornered square 1980s snapshots – clchés; a mis-aimed shot of a backyard, one edge of the frame showing a boy in a Besser-brick pit, perhaps the foundations for an extension or a pool, or an elaborate sand-pit. We can’t tell because the main focus of the shot is an expanse of mown grass on which stands the loaded clothes-line, its nappies and sheets and towels tilted to the breeze.
Another shows the same blond boy in a two-tone T-shirt emblazoned with the word SKATEBOARD in kiddie-coloured lettering, his face besmirched with chocolate as, seated in his high chair he gazes fixedly at the birthday cake and its two candles, ignoring the slice in the yellow plastic bowl next to him. A camera ever-ready case lies on its back on the table.
Those are two photographs not in the CAM show, which is a much pared-down version; twelve images, not the thirty-two that Katrin displays on her website, and which I assume have been included in other showings of the series, which dates from 2012-2013
Here, her prints, in a variety of sizes and of frames, are hung sparsely, some in groups, across the western wall of CAM’s Whitchell gallery, in a staggered array which forces the viewer to move back and forth, and their eyes to scan up and down, to weigh each image against the others. We find the mundane content of snapshots now freighted with meaning extracted by her own minimalist land- and sky-scapes alongside; larger images that transport us beyond the horizon of the event of unseen death.
Intermingled are planar copies of objects; only three where in the original series there are fifteen. Each article is flattened by the stare of the lens; these are not deadpan scans but images that, from each humble thing, Katrin’s subtle finesse of her medium extracts an aura.
The chain of the heart-shaped locket inscribed “My Dearest * Alana * Love Chris” is laid so that it appears, in a print of watery blue cast, to spring from its bosom, to tumble above it like the water-spout of a fountain. Its placement in a trinity here is tendentious; immediately below we see Chris tightly framed and standing on the tile roof of a suburban house. Casually posed on his precarious perch against the blue sky, only the blue of his jeans emerges from the shade. He holds a loosely looped rope that echoes the coils of the locket chain. The inner moulding of the picture’s dark frame is in the pattern of a rope.
Alana herself is portrayed bare-shouldered against a freshly unfolded grey sheet that carries a blue somewhere between that sky blue and the tint of the background in the larger locket print. Her gaze is directed away from the other prints in this trio, back toward the snapshot of Chris as a young boy. Her mouth is pursed, her eyes hooded, hair tightly drawn back into a bun; her expression is inscrutable.
Chris, the boy, is presented bright, blond and brown in a white frame into the corner of which has been montaged a snap of his favourite toy car. His eyes are frank and friendly but his smile contradicts the dimpled cheeks with a forced twist.
These are pictures ‘OF something’, of things as they are, certainly, but they are ‘invested’ by Koenning’s photography, just as “investment” in lost-wax sculpture is the process of building a rock-hard shell around the hand-modelled form so that when the wax has been melted out, the investment will serve as a matrix for molten bronze.
In the instances here (top left) of a pile of square chemist prints, that envelopment, or embrace, is emphasised by halo-ing the centred objects within a tondo. The pile of snapshots with only the backs visible, and the ground on which they lie, also white, both carry a tone that is a step deeper than the circle through which we see them.
An earlier version, showing ‘Kodak’ trademarks on them makes it more obvious that these overlapping squares are snapshot prints. The effect here is to set the casual stack of prints in shallow relief, tangible to the eye which cannot see the images on their faces, sealed beneath the glass frame which thus becomes a reliquary.
The white veil has been circled by blood-red fabric hung so that its slight chevron folds open up against the downward drape of the veil, gathered at the top, that appears to pour from a knife-slit in the red.
These effects extend the frank emotional affect of the series beyond the funereal, the personal “in memoriam,” or the lachrymose. Dry-eyed we question this suicide; “Why?”
As Koenning goes on to explain…
Dear Chris is engaged with the connection between loss, ritual and memory. Rather than following a linear narrative, the project is made of three interchangeable ‘chapters’: vernacular pictures from Chris’ childhood Album, photographs of some of Chris’ objects kept by Alana, and finally photographs of places of significance to Chris – his story, and ours.
Of the places of significance, they too have have been culled for this showing, with but one remaining; a view in the anonymous commercial landscape of a Hancock Timber Resource Group pine plantation perhaps — presumably the “forest so deep” to which Chris returned to commit his final act. In Koenning’s representation of this location a swathe has been cleared for a power line through the dense plantings. The cutting parts the forest’s impenetrable depths to either side to permit a glimpse of a distant mountain, clearing cloud and blue sky while on the ground lies the trash of herbicide-killed brown bracken and fallen pine trunks.
Of identical size and next to the forest image is a print that is of a blue broken only by an evaporating cloud and below, a map-like patch of deeper hue. Interrupting its illusion of infinite depth is an illuminated exit sign that causes the viewer a double-take to ascertain that it’s not a reflection; the blue expanse spreads behind a glass sheet like that which separates us, the viewer, from the print in this gallery, in which are also green exit signs.
Dismiss the idea that Koenning is making a trite pun about suicide as escape; for the viewer standing at close range to this large print, the photographic doubling confounds a simple reading. That barrier to the boundless is reiterated in other images of the heavens that conclude the series; in one, grey clouds tinged a dirty pink hang against more distant layers, but behind a surface layer of darkroom dust, scuffs and stains that infect the next two prints to cast into doubt an impression that they show night skies.
One has only to survey the diversity of Koenning’s other subjects in other series to appreciate her deft and knowing control of her medium, whose gamut she fearlessly exploits to an end that can be understood by making comparison with the three works at the opposite end of the Witchell Gallery; the 2020 “lockdown project” of Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, which works either as a triptych, or like Koenning’s, as a sequence.
Like latter-day Robert Rauschenbergs their imagery consists of montaging a culturally and temporally disparate array of found photographic and visual art imagery, but instead of opting for Rauschenberg’s ‘easy-out’ of screen print, each image – from an archive of magazine, newspaper and book illustrations, with transcriptions of their own landscapes of this region, and some shots taken when they were offical war artists in Afghanistan – is painstakingly rendered in oil on linen.
Artistic ‘rendering,’ techniques which we know from the American Photorealists Richard Estes and Audrey Flack, here employed are not unlike the industrial processing of animals to produce purified tallow or lard, substances not unlike oil paint, but with the product (as I receive it and admitting to not appreciating painted copies of photographs) being an homogenisation and pasteurisation of the emotional content. Brown’s and Green’s work becomes an intellectual reading that relies very much on an appetite for art history and visual journalism and culture. As another strategy they are known to rephotograph the end result and re-present it as a large backlit transparency to enhance its coherence, with quite a different motive than Koenning, whose re-photography challenges our apprehension.
Arc One Gallery, who represents them, explains the work of the collaborating couple;
Working within intersections of painting, photography and digital reproduction, the artists explore the complex notions of visual and cultural archival structures and the entwined connections between (artistic) memory and representation. [The couple] engages with their positive interaction with the archive, or cultural store, as opposed to the 1980s ‘mining’ or appropriation of other artist’s work. Indeed, this is a fundamental part of the artists’ practice – Brown and Green are rebuffing the 1980s prejudice against painting…without the disillusionment of postmodernism and retrieving the past for inspiration.
One of the works (the left panel in the above illustration) they present in Castlemaine, where the couple now live, pays tribute to local students’ recent climate activism through school strikes and demonstrations, a picture of which inserts into the painting, at top left, its title Activism is Learning, lettering hastily painted on crumpled cardboard and held up by a secondary student on the steps of the Old Treasury Building, Melbourne on November 30, 2018. The original photograph was by Nikon Award-winning Luis Ascui, for Joe Hinchliffe’s article “Thousands of schoolchildren join Melbourne climate rally,” in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 30, 2018. Born in Santiago, Chile, Ascui has worked as a photojournalist in South America, Australia, Europe, and South East Asia over the last 28 years, and who has undertaken projects in Afghanistan, where Brown and Green served as official war artists. Like them, and Koenning, Ascui is a tertiary lecturer.
Brown’s painting of this image bestows on the figures and action in it something of the aura of Delacroix’s 1830 Liberty Leading the People, but slows our reading of it since a brush, even so competently and conscientiously handled, cannot reproduce the crisp lighting and intricate textures of the original digital photograph that make its effect so immediate.
For visitors to these works in Cloudy – a few isolated showers, the series — or is it a triptych? — by Green and Brown provides a rich paradox for free interpretation.
The subject of suicide, in art, is still taboo and vulnerable visitors perhaps should be provided advisory warnings and resources in text panels nearby, were it not that Koenning’s work urges us to see that to take one’s own life is not only no escape, but takes other’s lives as a consequence.
[I’ve started a Wikipedia article on Katrin Koenning]