Good News : David LaChapelle’s photo-gospel

‘Anointing’, 2003, from the series Jesus is my Homeboy, by David LaChapelle

Catching the last days of this exhibition at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, I went to see David LaChapelle’s Good News for Modern Man in October this year. Not quite a retrospective for the photographer, the show concentrates on his fine art photography with oversized tableaux prints produced in bold, searing, colours and drawing on his earlier career’s attention to celebrity and fashion icons. Produced more or less since the turn of the twenty-first century, these works catapult what might otherwise have been jaded or cynical comment on the overblown and hedonistic art-commercial scene in which he was involved into something extraordinarily vibrant. Into, indeed, ‘Good news’. For LaChapelle, the optimism underpinning his detailed attention to pictorial construction, to the art of making meaning, is one couched in the Christian language of redemption and salvation. Overtly, and with intent, LaChapelle is one of a number of photographic artists today bringing biblical reference, of which the show’s title is just one example, centre-stage.

Deluge, Room 7 at the Groninger Museum
I was, I admit, overwhelmed by the work. Over 60 pieces illuminated the colour-blocked walls with stage-lit drama and cinematic immersion: each room of 10 had its own mood of theatre, from the sun-blanched yellow of the Land Scape series, to the submerged aquamarine backdrop for the largest room Deluge. It’s no exaggeration to say that the ‘show-ness’ of the show was part of its attraction – viewers were invited to inhabit worlds in which the people represented were companionably life-size, yet also pitched at the extremes of human reckoning such as drowning, or found in Edenic forest, or at the height of societal fame (with the Kardashians). The un-peopled environments presented were just as seductive. The room Earth Laughs in Flowers contained a series of large-format chromogenic prints whose apparently traditional still-life arrangement of flowers in vases disguised more contemporary visual abundance in artful combination: tins of pop, mobile phones, plastic packaging. The series title comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, one work from which includes the line ‘God is Not the Author of Confusion’ in the kaleidoscopic presentation of a Late Summer bouquet.

Over-abundance, kaleidoscopic colours, and an unflinching embrace of Western society’s more decadent preoccupations are yet compatible with LaChapelle’s Catholic faith. Inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, his 2006 work The Deluge includes a saving Jesus figure reaching from a cruciform telegraph pole, forming the apex of a flooded and chaotic urban recreation of the Genesis story. In his Awakened series (2007), single submerged figures in contemporary dress, named after biblical characters such as Abram, Ruth, and Deborah, are suspended in life or death, light blazing from behind them. And he has said of his series about Jesus, pictured above:

If you really want to shock people in the art world, talk about Jesus or God. You could take a dump on a gallery floor and they won’t care. That’s art … when I wanted to do Jesus Is My Homeboy, I wanted to ask who Jesus would hang with, if he was back. And it wouldn’t be the aristocrats or the rich people, but the disfranchised. I was making this point to the editor of i-D and I heard the phone go dead. Eastern religions like Buddhism are cool – anything foreign or exotic like that is acceptable, but Christianity has a horrible reputation because of fundamentalists and evangelicals.

(quoted by Nosheen Iqbal in the Guardian, 21/11/17). LaChapelle’s is a reading of simultaneity across Bible subject, art subject, and contemporary human experience. It is not particularly loaded with moral freight or intellectual depth, lacking the dimensionality of either backwards- or forward-facing temporality, and its present is an imaginative realm rather than the social or geographical field of photographic topos. In this sense, LaChapelle’s work orchestrates biblical reference for unironic symbolic value, to reclaim from the extremes of fundamentalist religious interpretation or art-world dismissal a lively middle way in which it is possible, as he put it, to ‘live dimensionally [in the modern world] and still have faith’ (interview on The Art Newspaper, October 2008). I like the intent here, and the sense of ownership. From a white gay former studio assistant to Andy Warhol, it’s an ownership that confronts prejudice on so many levels. Here’s to the recognition of that, especially when it’s in danger of being lost in the stream of celebrity-association that LaChapelle is more often known for.

detail from ‘The Deluge’, 2006, David LaChapelle

Female Photographers Al Fresco in France

Photograph by Yagazie Emezi, Festival Pil’Ours, La Chaize Giraud

A brief holiday review here, with the chance discovery of the Festival Pil’Ours in France: an outdoor, multi-site exhibition of work by ten female documentary photographers across the region of St Gilles Croix de Vie. It’s a fitting reflection of the holiday mode that sometimes we encounter photography incidentally, without seeming to connect with its directive in normally prescribed ways. Here, at three sites on our family’s travels, a windmill at St Révérend, the coastal promenade of St Gilles Croix de Vie, and visiting a church at La Chaize Giraud, we found the work of Sanja Knezevic, Maan Youssouf Ahmed and Yagazie Emezi (above) respectively.
What I noticed wasn’t so much the depth and strength of the artist’s portfolios, but the impact of the surrounding setting and the kind of detached engagement which this al fresco photography seems to encourage. At no point did the information provided at the sites mention any competition website, artist website, social media, or even email, in order to find out more. The global Pil’Ours logo communicates an international reach, and so do the subjects of photographers based in Nigeria, Serbia, and elsewhere; yet frustratingly they seemed unreachable. This absence of physical and digital linking, both outwards and between subjects, is a telling one for revealing a hermeneutic premised on one-way dissemination of information – there is no connectivity to the experience of viewing these works. One artist’s work in St Gilles (Alexia Webster) was vandalised, her portraits of South Africans scratched over with gouges and swastikas, which, aside from the politics involved, suggests that a hermeneutics of information at some level denies conversation. When an interpretation may be defiantly expressed in a negative way, it is perhaps the absence of a more positive one that has failed in the context of international promotion. In terms of local promotion however, the sense of a three-dimensional frame for each image I found quite exciting – the visual dynamic of 2-dimensional work changes when the background is a space one occupies and walks in. It gives the setting a new prominence, even agency, because we are in it and we become foregrounded. Perhaps that too is an invitation to interaction, to a more communal, conversational form of engagement with photography – seen perhaps most promisingly in the collective spirit of Shutterhub’s contribution to the show, a series of contact-sheet style images from over 70 female photographers. Here indeed, partly in the group’s theme of female empowerment, and partly in its celebration on social media, there was a sense of activating the subject-matter for new audiences and within new places.

Feminist photo lines at the Pallant House Gallery

Room 10 at the Pallant House Gallery’s ‘Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks’.

The Pallant House Gallery is showing the touring exhibition Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks, until 16th September (previously at the Tate St Ives, and continuing to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2nd October – 9th December). The display of over 80 female artists, from 1854 to the present day, nominally explores the inspiration of Woolf’s writings through artists who work across a variety of media, from film to photography, from painting to collage, from installation to sculpture. The mix presents a record of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ and a scoping of ‘alternative ways for women to be’ (from the press release). Let’s own a bit of my own limited female experience here, by acknowledging from the outset that I know nothing about Virginia Woolf and have never read her work. I will be blogging again about her later this year, in a spirit of reckoning with those texts as they might relate to her family’s positioning on the Bible, especially in the light of her sister Vanessa Bell’s involvement with the Berwick Church murals in Sussex (and her photography for the same). That presents a more specific opportunity to relate the artistic-literary impulses of the Bloomsbury set to Christianity and the Bible, which does not run in the currents of this exhibition. Instead here, I found myself sifting lines of feminist art practice not from Woolf outwards, but across modernism and across photography and across the exhibition’s four themes of landscape, still life/the home, the self in public, and the self in private.

I confess myself disappointed in the shrinking of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ to these themes. Where are the rooms themed ‘God’, ‘war’, or ‘technology’? When the exhibition does introduce a perspective of engagement that steps outside the framed exhibits, as with France-lise McGurn’s multi-coloured meandering lines painted across the walls of Room 10 (above), or with Eleanor Smith’s Shrimp Shell wallpaper-like embellishments for Room 13, these remain confined by a decorative, essentially harmless, tone for what is the more serious business of a serious story. And that in turn is failed by dislocated glimpses into whole lives of intentionality reduced to labelled observations of female bodies, vases, or fields. It is perhaps unfair to expect deeper, more rigorous, explorations of the female mind in such an eclectic and ranging collection of works, but the effect for me was to suggest that female experience aligns with precisely these qualities of eclecticism and reductive scatter-brained attention.

Eileen Agar, ‘Ladybird’, 1936; gelatine silver print and guache
Penny Slinger, ‘Perspective’, 1970-7; photo collage

I did think, however, that photography was well-represented. In that sense, an ownership of medium presented itself through particular female artists where I hadn’t seen it before – to me, the ownership of the camera/photograph, as opposed to the ownership of painting still-life, or the ownership of minimalist sculpture practices, or the ownership of the pen, is already a very different feminist exercise. The 1920s and 1930s saw Claude Cahun pre-date Cindy Sherman with self-portraiture as a constructed get-up of identity, while Eileen Agar and Edith Rimmington take the collaged image into surrealism and the unconscious. They hustle themselves through younger conventions of the medium’s transparency, a transparency hitched to self-representation and the document and less to the objecthood of the subject. I like Agar’s dancing ‘feminine type of imagination’ (her words), and Cahun’s Judith or Salomé (not in the exhibition) become a biblical look-in before Sherman’s series of the same. A later cluster of 1970s work introduced me to Penny Slinger, Hannah Wilke, and Birgit Jürgenssen. Slinger’s series of collages over seven years, titled ‘An Exorcism’, evoke a force of emancipation that can only be expressed through pseudo-spiritual terms of release from ‘spirits of the past and other people’s ideas of them’.

Is it a mark of the museum/gallery curator practices (or funding directives) that the threads of emphasised significance, the statements about this or that art work, have to express historic value over and above other values? I felt a tension in the exhibition between historic female artists held up as exemplary for their positions in a story of emancipation, and between the contemporary female artists held up as exemplary by association with that story. The former are somehow confirmed, the latter remain unconfirmed by history, yet are pressed into that line. The former includes the small self-portrait by Louise Jopling (1877, in the gold frame, top image), a founder of a painting school for women in the nineteenth century, while the latter includes Zanele Muholi’s photographic self-portrait Bona, Charlottesville (2015, top image, right). It’s not that I think contemporary work can’t be important for history – of course it can and will be. Rather, to stress the activist, political thread here in these stridently progressive terms (Muholi brings her South African identity to questions of gender, racism, and homicide) is actually a limiting operation for what I think is the present-tense meaning of art made now, particularly photography. Recent photography categorically resists historical significance: it is life in front of us. And there is an ‘us’, into which its mode of meaning plays – not the ‘them’ of history. To speak to, or with, an ‘us’ is ideologically miles apart from the posture of ‘them’. For every expanding photographic gaze on different corners and perspectives of our world, the inscribing frame is one of collective and continuity (even if speaking of difference within it, as with Muholi). The viewing implications are of responsibility rather than influence, of a horizontal relation of humanity rather than a vertical one of intellectual patterning. As I said of another collective exhibition ‘Tribe’ earlier this year, 21st-century feminism is, I think, ‘less about feminist politicisation, more about feminine vocalisation’. We need to recognise this interactivity in the viewing and making of art in this space, and photography puts us there, centre frame.

Reading between the Bible lines in Tacita Dean’s desert

Tacita Dean, ‘Quarantania’, photogravure, 2018

It’s a commonplace to find photography and the Bible linked through particularly simple illustration: if you pick up any modern guide to the Bible, you’ll invariably find a book or website with photographs of the landscape of Palestine and Syria, or of its flora & fauna, or of archaeological remains. Occasionally an image might zone in on an object given particularly rich symbolic significance in the text, like a vine or a dove. Invariably, the context of the illustration delimits the use of the image, ‘this is what it says’ becomes a closed line of reference, each in collusion with the other. To me, there’s a redundancy and a poverty, linguistically, in this arrangement. Ok to establish some concretion of the Bible and world, but it doesn’t reflect the elasticity of the text itself very well. MUCH more interesting to me is the impetus of an artist for whom the linking of photographs and biblical text is a chance to change the game, to ask questions that make the relation a more open question of reference.

This piece, Quarantania, by Tacita Dean is one such exploration. It’s by far my favourite in her London take-over this summer at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Academy. She has been given a landmark triptych of shows, all of which I visited in order to write a review for the forthcoming autumn issue of Art & Christianity. There’s a lot of work, and a lot of film, this being the medium for which she is most celebrated. She is at her best, in my opinion, when the landscape and the still life (two of the gallery themes) present opportunity to engage more widely across other media, other time-frames, other ideologically separate concepts (than that of self-conferring artist portraits). And one of these is the Bible. We find it as a premise for her film Antigone, an opening reference to the sojourn of the Israelites in the desert. We find it in the curated arrangements that include a painting of John the Baptist’s head, or a communion plate. We find it in some of her chalk drawings of the natural world. And we find it in Quarantania.

    

Mount Quarantania is found in the desert between Jericho and Jerusalem, and is also referred to as the Mount of Temptation. It is notionally the site where Jesus was tempted by the devil before he began his three-year ministry as recorded at the start of the synoptic gospels, in most detail in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Dean’s seven-panel work, each comprising 3 photo-mechanically printed sections, has a filmmaker’s sense of framing, even spooling, across what is a panoramic capturing of rockface and desert expanse. The lurid sky and seeping distant terrain have an apocalyptic oppression, and the only release of air seems to come from the dust of the chalk writing which scallops across parts of the scene. This breath, these whispers, are fragments of reading from/around the Bible. There are identifiers, ‘place of temptation’, ‘Satan’s Step’, ‘Judaen desert’. There are questions, ‘where are you JC?’, ‘alone?’. There are emphasised statements, ‘bread or SATISFACTION’, ‘hedonism, egoism and materialism, WEALTH’. Clustered around a scattering of pots in the fifth panel are the numbers 1 to 40, and the words ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’. Unlike a book illustration, where the texts pedagogically read the image, here the image seems to practise a reading of the text. And its ‘reading’ is like breathing, an organic reaction emerging from the cracks and fissures in the rock, not scripted around gridded lines of text. Conversation not proclamation. Hybridity not homogeneity. Imaged not written. In this sensitivity, something of an exploration is going on, in which Dean reaches for mythical/Scriptural attachment to place and uses it to inhabit her own engagement with the landscape and its representation. It is a theology of place no less, an interweaving/interleaving of Bible and world with self.

The perspective of pilgrimage at the Sony World Photography Awards

From Alys Tomlinson’s ‘Ex Voto’ series, at Somerset House, London, 2018
Overall winner and Photographer of the Year at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is Alys Tomlinson for her series Ex-Voto. A British winner for the first time in ten years, Tomlinson presents a series of black and white photographs across the genres of portrait, landscape, and still life exploring the geography and legacies of particular European pilgrimage sites. In Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland), a distillation of details with carved crosses in rocks, suspended animation in forest clearings, and quietly direct faces form a study in contemplation that reaches for depth in faith and history.

It is a superlative achievement, rendered with a poise and sincerity that seemed to eclipse the noisy exuberance of other entries. Tomlinson entered in the category for professional photographers called ‘Discovery’, new this year to the competition. It appears to tap a vein of invested story-telling, something that goes beyond the documentary, externalised interest of other places and people. Also shortlisted in this category was the series Els Enfarinat by Antonio Gibotta, in which scenes of ‘the Floured’s War’ are shown taking place in Ibi, Spain every December – a flamboyant festival of smoke, fireworks, and enacted combat with reverberations in the biblical festival of the Day of the Innocents. Both Gibotta’s work and Tomlinson’s reveal ‘discoveries’ that suggest an internalised interest, a connection of world with something soulfully and historically meaningful. In this case, perhaps surprisingly, it is also Christian. Here an observant photography, far from being blind to cultural politicisation of the visual field, or blind to the global, diversifying, colour of the contemporary environment can also see the Bible, the horizon of Christian faith, and the sincerely held habits of belief in European traditions. Further, it can do so without suspicion, without irony, and with a lens porous to the visual meaningfulness of spiritual observance.

Nun, 1921 by August Sander.
Tomlinson herself feels the attraction of simple faith, though she does not share it. Her time at the pilgrimage sites grew out of a residency at Lourdes at the Marie Saint-Frai in 2014. Her long-term project there had spanned her studies for an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage (SOAS), during which time she continued in documentary and editorial photography. But it was the contrary impetus of a world defined by ‘the peace and the space that people carve out to just sit and think’, as she has said in interview, that drew her attention. In this sense, Tomlinson’s recognition of faith is registered in images that seem to concentrate slowed time and intentionality. Her own perspective shifts in what is immersive sympathy with, and not simply conceptual accommodation of an ‘other’ community. The views in the photographs imply her own viewing directness, the near-tactility of objects, and the self-positioning of her gaze – not to mention the aesthetic of black-and-white across different focal zones. There’s a hum to the series as a whole that resists any suggestion of artful distance, instead resonating with the personal effects of a certain kind of reflective action. The portrait above bears comparison, for example, to an August Sander portrait from 1921. The frontal pose and the framing of the figure against a blurred background give the same nominal setting for the same subject, but Sander keeps the societal difference and the signs of his classification in view (as evidenced in his 1929 publication Face of Our Time), whereas Tomlinson renders at life-size an immediacy and vulnerability of person. Across her series indeed, we find this attentive and searching gaze, reflected and held in a vision that is at once photographic and spiritual.