reality, pseudo reality and psycho-reality

Good ol’ Art Gallery of Ballarat. They’re always putting good stuff on. Which is a great pleasure really. Ballarat is such a unique city. There’s parts of it that are just breathtakingly beautiful. Some of the architecture is really wonderful. And yet, it feels like there’s about 50 000 people missing from the wide streets. As a city, physically, it really wouldn’t be out of place in some parts of Europe. At least in terms of history and a certain sense of grandeur. Really. And then there’s these massive warehouse buildings, many of which seem empty and ripe for re-activation. Oh well, maybe one day.

Peter Aldrich had a show on that I was going to check out, called Dog. But on my way to it I walked through the 43rd Ballarat National Photographic Exhibition and a small show of the gallery’s selection called photorealist and trompe l’oeuil: paintings from the Gallery’s collection. Both of which were a nice surprise and offered plenty to look at and ponder. In fact, taking in the photography got me to thinking about the very nature of photography itself and raised a lot of issues about that artform. There’s always the remnants of the debate about whether photography is art. And I won’t labour over that here. What really struck me though, was how much power the photo journalism/social documentary category had. It felt as if it gathered a certain gravitational weight because it was able to draw together 2 forces – the artist’s hand and the reality of the moment. To a certain degree, landscape photography, portraiture, still life and nature photography rely much more heavily on capturing the reality of the moment (the sunlight, the bird, the apple etc) than on the photographer’s creative actions. It’s a generalisation, for sure, but with each wall dedicated to a different sort of photography, it was clear that the categories that allowed for more creative inputs from the photographers were the more potent.

And then on into the next gallery space was a great showing of realist paintings from the collection. I love a good curated show. In this suite of works I was particularly drawn to Deborah Klein, who I have mentioned before on this site. A portrait of a woman, from behind, skillfully painted and displaying a wonderful knot of plaited hair. Appearing like a celtic or even georgian knot, it evoked a sense of the feminine, of identity and of sensuality. Personally, I’m not normally a fan of photo-realism as it just seems like an exercise in technical skill, with little conceptual input. I mean, if it’s just a case of directly representing something in front of you, then photography becomes a reasonable option. But Klein’s work, while realistic, is loaded with more ambiguity which tones down the directly readable realism and amplifies the possible readings.

So, to Peter Aldrich. Exhibited in a darkened space you had to allow for your body to acclimatise a bit to the light. Which works for this show because there is a strong psychological edge to it. The reflective nature of the compositions – where patterns are made as if by ink blots, or Rorschach tests – also amplifies that sense of psychology and subconscious concerns. With images made up of highly detailed ink drawings of dogs, snakes and the moon, a strong masculine theme is evident. These are symbolic totems of manhood, of aggression and of a dark inner drive toward animistic tendencies. The animals often glare back at the viewer in defiance and with a challenging air. What is quite touching, and a wonderful counterbalancing effect in the works, was the delicate treatment in the introduction of floral elements. Plant matter, leaves and flowers were depicted with an intricacy and lightness that injected a sense of hope, of tender optimism and possibility, into the testosterone-laden darkness. Also acting as a balance against the flattened ink blot nature of much of the work was the occasional piece that allowed for a greater freedom of space on the page. For example, Dog, tree, hole (the top image above) pulls you into the image and allows your eyes to work around the implied territory occupied by the elements named in the title.

All in all – another great trip to this great gallery.

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