August 14, 2019
‘If I can free a humble material from itself, perhaps I can free myself from myself’
(Richard Tuttle 2004)
I wasn’t sure about a title for this new series of photographs. I started with Packaging, because the early pieces were mainly parts of cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, jiffy bags etc, the sort of mundane stuff that endlessly builds up with online shopping. I felt that Packaging emphasised this modern phenomenum and gave the project a contemporary narrative. But pretty soon I started photographing other surfaces that I found around the studio; things like a used cutting matt, a piece of cardboard covered in spots of gesso and the blank covers of sketchbooks. Online shopping wasn’t the only story here. More important was surface, materiality and the sculptural properties of found ‘surfaces’. My real interest lay in using photography to elevate objects from their everyday existence whatever narratives they suggested.
Over the years I’ve often returned to using mundane objects and landscapes in my work. I wanted to create ‘micro landscapes’ from unremarkable things or locations and to challenge the hierarchy and status of materials and places, using photography. I’ve been a long term fan of 1960’s American minimalism and the work of artists that have continued to engage with many of it’s themes, be it the use of everyday found objects, materiality, and monochromic colour. Of particular interest to me have been Piero Manzoni’s white Achromes made from ‘nothing materials’, Hélio Oiticica’s suspended surfaces or ‘Bilaterials’, Cy Twombly’s white sculptures or ‘Things’ as he titled them and more recently Rachael Whiteread’s sculptures of humble everyday household objects such as hot water bottles, cupboards and mattresses. I’ve also been interested in exploring surface in my work. Although I remember standing in front of a small Robert Ryman white monochrome painting on plastic at the Thadeus Ropac gallery in London thinking can photography as a medium ever match the sensuality of this work and of paint and sculpture in general? Maybe Wolfgang Tilmans has come close with his colour monochromes but they seem more about the application of ink to the print than photography.
In the White and Brown Cardboard works, I was looking for surfaces I could transform. Dull, low tech ubiquitous surfaces that could be lifted and re-examined through photography. To make us aware that reflected light can stimulate the senses from the most mundane of places. Jiffy Bag 2019, was about examining the ultimate everyday banal object. I felt the the surface could resemble the ‘idealised whiteness’ of marble or could suggest an aerial mountain landscape. The piece of brown cardboard titled Spilt Gesso, 2018, I found discarded on the floor of my framers. I liked the reference to gestural abstract painting and the idea that this thrown away piece could also be looked at as an artwork. Underside of Blue Cardboard Box, 2019 is a nod to Yves Klein’s iconic Blue Monochromes, although in reality it is the underside of a box of Carluccio’s pasta. Cutting Matt, 2019 is about surface texture, abstraction and photographic process as subject. In Blue Foam, 2018, the faded turquoise square could be a metaphor for an exotic far off seascape although we now know that the synthetic polymers that go in to making foam have poisioned our oceans irreversibly. Sketchbook Cover, 2019 evokes several thoughts for me. It is the cover of one of my late mother’s sketchbooks. She was really good at portraits and it may well be about my own desire to draw (or my lack of confidence to get started). Or perhaps a realisation that photography is simply another way of drawing. The piece of white and purple cardboard resembles a minimalist abstraction that could also suggest a seascape with horizon. Given climate change and the state of our oceans I have subtitled the piece Storm Brewing, 2019.
Many of the objects I have photographed are white or off white. For non photographers, white is the hardest ‘colour’ to photograph as there is nothing there to get hold of. You can always go into a dark shadow and find something. But light merely reflects back off a white surface. I learnt to soften the light source, find surfaces with some light absorbing texture and by using the most powerful digital camera available, find a way of building up ‘content’ within the whiteness. I’m not sure why these white surfaces appealed to me so much. Was it the ‘emptiness’ or ‘fullness’ of the void ? Or, was I trying to make the viewer slow down and look more closely as white focuses attention firmly on the materiality and sculptural qualities of an object, without the distraction of colour with all its emotions and imbued meanings. Although Herman Melville in Moby Dick suggests that white represents both the absence of colour and yet is full of meaning….
‘In essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; it is for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning’
I’m told white can suggest intellectual inquiry, or according to Louise Bourgeois, a ‘new start’ but as David Batchelor warns us in his book, Chromophobia, notions of ‘pure’ white can be dangerous territory, ‘masking corruption’ or fake manufactured ethics. Fortunately, I had chosen objects with plenty of ‘impurities’ like faded sellotape, cardboard moulding lines, finger marks and machined binding holes. Marks that ground the works in the everyday and suggest something beyond the abstract. I’m interested in a degree of abstraction but not at the expense of a narrative, however dull that might be. So, for example, in Untitled, (Black Tape), 2019, the cardboard box reinforced with black masking tape provided me with both a dense black rectangular space (with all the associations of a ‘black void’) and an interesting reflective surface of horizontal and vertical lines made up from the stitching in the tape and the gaps between the tape. There is a pale blue line (or ‘zip’) in the centre of the box conjuring up painterly references. Alongside its form and surface materiality the work evokes mundane stories of online shopping, overwrapped cardboard boxes, and returning unwanted stuff to the seller.
I’ve have been asked why I don’t simply show the pieces as found ‘objects’. But this misses the point. I’m a photographer not a sculptor. My medium is light and the ways in which it mediates the object. The suspension of the objects from a white surface is an important part of the work as the shadow is a means to display form and detail but I’m also interested in how photography can elevate a surface and the effects this has on it’s perceived materiality and our connection to the object. It is a dialgue with sculpture but at the same time very different from placing an object to be looked at 360 degrees. There is an acknowledged sense of subjectivity or interpretation. I choose the surface, the lighting, the angle of viewing, the background colour, the scale and the density of shadow, the print paper etc.
In conclusion, these photographs are an attempt to explore photography’s potential to create an intimate connection to surface using the possibilities emerging with new digital sensors that can create a sharpness or ‘hyper reality’ not previously possible with the traditional film negative, and in so doing hopefully further extend the dialogue between photography, sculpture and drawing. If there is a philosophical position here it is essentially an optimistic one. Optimistic in the sense that searching for ‘beauty’ from the banal or discarded object is a positive response to life even in times of environmental degradation, Brexit and Trump. And working slowly in the studio with everyday materials may also be healthy relief from the anxieties of 24/7 Instagram and social media. It may also be, as Tuttle suggests, a useful way of understanding oneself. Or at least trying.