Face2Face at Torre Abbey, Torquay

From the website advertising the exhibition.

Having recently met two other OCA students that live in Torbay, we met up to look at this exhibition and talk about the works together.  Alongside the usual works of art that hang in the Abbey, there were 30 mainly photographic works on display and scattered throughout the rooms.  It made an interesting discussion as to the curating of the work, where to put them and the decisions that had been made as to why certain works were in seemingly strange locations.  This is where the interaction with other students was helpful as they offered alternative ideas to mine, and while we can’t be certain our theories were correct, it made sense when looking again at the images in question.

There were works by people I had heard of and a lot that I hadn’t but then I vaguely recognised when seeing the images.  There were very large prints and some smaller frameless prints, some on acrylic, some black and white.  It was a treasure hunt trying to track them down among the permanent collection and some were in places that made you wonder why they had put them there.  There were three colour photographs that were quite small in size, all placed close to the ceiling in a room that had very high ceilings so the viewer has to crane their necks to be able to see them.  They were placed in a dining room decorated in late 19th century style while the images were modern – Sue Tilley posing in Lucien Freud’s Studio by Bruce Bernard being one of them.

At a time when I am studying about portraits and different ways of setting them up, this exhibition drew on ideas of self-portrait in work by Sarah Lucas and the family members by Richard Billingham caught seemingly unaware of the photographer, to Chris Killip and his black and white portraits of everyday work and people.  There were also some portraits of punks by Steve Johnston that I really liked as to me they set a time and place that could only be the late 1970s, early 1980s with the clothing hair and makeup.  We had a discussion about how strongly we could identify the period and how shocking the look was at the time, and how it still appears quite radical today in an era of highly sexualised and ‘one look’ that many young people adopt.  In one image of two girls, one was wearing fishnet tights and a jacket with spiky black hair and the harsh heavy makeup of the era.  There was a political message in the approach that I remember as being a way of sticking up two fingers to the establishment, it was anti-establishment, not-conforming to previous ideals and a way of shocking the older generation.  In another, a young man wears a swastika armband that would have been definitely something offensive to the generation that had fought in WWII, and even today appears as something that has connotations of something evil.  Interestingly, this image was in the same setting as another one called Our limit is that of the desire and imagination of the human mind (1996) by Michael Landy.  It is of a refuse worker dressed totally in red with black boots picking up paper people: “It was the artist’s response to the then government’s approach to the homeless and jobless in society, but coincided also with the wide emergence of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the context of the war in the Balkans”. (from the accompanying bio on the wall)  Our thoughts were that the colouring in the photograph of red suit, black boots on a white background had connotations of the swastika colouring as well as having general suggestions that that colouring often suggests power.  The link between the actions of the Nazis in 1940s Germany and those of the Bosnians in the Balkans could also be read into the pairing of these two.  It’s possible that we overthought the whole thing but it was interesting just to discuss ideas.

Sarah Lucas’s work was not known to me but I was intrigued by it.  They were spread throughout the exhibition but the one that struck me most was Fighting Fire with Fire (1996) in which she has a defiant look that is very masculine as she smokes a cigarette.  However, she claims “she had one clear idea for this work, which was ‘to get a long ash’, rather than trying to look ‘defiant’ she wanted to convey a more natural look.”  It is an interesting take on the gaze that looks straight at the camera.  I found it amusing that her aim was to smoke the cigarette to a long ash and reminded me of my childhood where my friend’s mum used to permanently have a long ash on her cigarette. It explained the look that could be seen as defiant when maybe she was just concentrating really hard.  Two of her other works from this series were also on display: Eating a Banana (1990) and Human Toilet Revisited (1998).  These are two different images with the first being another stare at the camera in tough stance and the latter being a more unguarded moment, relaxed, contemplative in nature.  She appears to be thinking while sitting on the toilet seat lid in an unglamorous location of the bathroom.  She is an interesting artist and I will be looking more at her work.

There was one photograph that really caught my eye, a black and white image of a young man with tattoos on his face by Derek Ridgers.  I tried tracking it down online and it came up as a colour image which really changed it.  The black and white image had a beauty in the design of the tattoo that covered his face; the colour added a more aggressive feel to it as it was clearer that he was a skinhead.  I believe it was called Bonner, Kings Road Chelsea, 1982.

He has the barest hint of a smile and looks directly into the lens, which changes the feeling and softens it but the black and white one doesn’t show this so clearly.  The artistry of the tattoo is intricate and he has ‘skinhead‘ tattooed on his neck yet wears a paisley patterned scarf round his neck which I think is more allied with the Mods movement.  Maybe that is the point of punk, to take bits and pieces from other places and build it into a new identity and meaning.

Overall it was a good look at different styles of portraits and by different artists.  It helped having other students to talk to about the work and to make connections about what we like or dislike in photography. The siting of the images was a bit strange, being mixed in with paintings from other eras rather than the traditional gathering of all images in one place on white walls and subdued lighting.  It worked in one way but missed on another as it was quite hard to find them.  It also made a really nice change not having to fork out for the train fare to London to see it.

 

Websites:

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lucas-fighting-fire-with-fire-p78449

http://www.derekridgers.com/

http://showstudio.com/project/punk_photography/steve_johnston

 

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