EXHIBITION CATALOGUE ESSAY by Dr Neill Overton
In 1943 the Melbourne artist Albert Tucker gave us the first dark expressionism that might parallel the German Expressionists; rattling trams disappearing lit up yellow in the void. The number “6” of the Glen Iris tram sliding into a tunnelling night light with sharp moon fragments and red crescent lips slashed across a black theatrical backdrop skyline, in his Images of Modern Evil series. His painting Victory Girls (1943) gave us a society of glutinous slatterns prowling grim streets submerged in an aquatic moral decay, embroiled in the arms and embraces of throngs of drunken sailors sucking in the cold pre-dawn air.
In latching onto this word CIVIC, for the first port of call I looked to Tucker as an artist drawn into considering what it was his society consisted of, what it represented and what lay missing in action. It was not so much the criticism of the outsider from any moral plinth or pulpit, but the recognition in the Melbourne street of the mirrors of turpitude that the influx of American sailors, loneliness, and imminence of death overseas melded into suburban fleshpots of the oversexed and over here. This nihilism of a culture without future would be the only understandable one for any soldier or sailor in World War Two on leave heading back to a war zone. Is the role of painter or photographer to be a social critic or merely a mirror of that which they see in the society before them; its style, its look, its values, vacancies, dissipations, loss and faith? Is George Grosz with all his post World War One depictions of flesh turned to seed, and black ragged knife slashes of murder, debauchery, gluttony and exploitation only a recorder of Germany’s cabaret life between the wars? Or do his images in drawings celebrate and advocate that life? The Victory Girls charted by Albert Tucker are the painter offering a position towards life in the society observed around him.
Jamie Holcombe in this series of thematic photographs adopts an interesting position regarding the Victory Girls dilemma of artist as moral observer; the same series of photographs might all betray different views of the eye behind the lens. Are we seeing the scene itself as place, or as a traced evidence of what has occurred there? Holcombe offers up a metaphysical photography – the suggestion of something having just occurred, or being just about to occur. In Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings, he made manifest this notion of the ‘imminent’ – a moment at hand that the painting is either just behind, or just in front of – a girl in the deep middle of the night inexplicably rolls a hoop down a darkened street; the lean shadow of a statue looms edgily into view past a building’s veering corner. The shadow, rather than the substance, is all that stretches into our view or our thoughts regarding what the image is. In De Chirico’s painting, Mystery and Melancholy of the Street (1914), we are not privy to what is occurring, only able to hazard a second guess at what might take place. The image refuses to specify. Holcombe could as easily take on the stance of social critic; he could have assembled views in and around the Riverina that ‘illustrate’ decay, weathering, or rural abandonment. The photographer as outsider might well do exactly that; as ‘visual journalism’ from Sydney or Canberra, the photographer might fly in for a day and construct this narrative of their outside view of the rural stress upon the landscape, and the wearing down of people in the region who live here.
For Holcombe, he has lived in Wagga Wagga for some twenty years now, so whilst not yet a local – is scarcely a blow in. This is the first body of photographic work he has produced in direct response to this region in which he lives. I find this both odd and engaging – that for the past twenty years his photography has been of objects, people and spaces that could exist ‘anywhere’ in terms of international photography, rather than being ‘of location’. Now, deliberately, he has reached a point where the spaces, light, and interaction of the landscape in which he lives have become a determining element to the work.
There is a dominant horizontality to all of the work here – in large part I read this as a Turneresque response to the romantic sweep of landscape; of the power of nature to dwarf and render insignificant anything within it. Fire, charcoal, dirt and dust dominate the works. Or rather, the results of fire in the blackened, rent daylight hulls of buildings. The low horizon lines of most works, and compositions built of sparse repetitions; three trees, two roads in a fork, two surveyors’ posts, and emphasis on dominant cloud ranges betoken nature as weight bearing down on the base line of the photographs. The horizontal structure of all these photographs is echoed further by their format; it is a filmic aesthetic, of compositions cast in a 16 to 9 proportion derived more from the ghost of drive-in theatre screens looming large and spectral white above banks of hills – than to a photographic aesthetic. In fact, this abandoned drive-in emptiness continues in the views of empty sports grandstands, or the hollow shell of past South campus meeting halls fading into worn disuse.
As filmic glimpses, they eschew the postmodern tropes of a Cindy Sherman or Tracy Moffatt in any pointed high-colour 1950s posters of rural neglect or outback ‘characters’. The palette is particularly soft, in fact low keyed, towards pale blues and washed out pinks – If Bill Henson is all Renaissance darkness and Caravaggio clenched hands reaching down in modern city pietas of lowered girl-childs cradled in grimy laneway punk martyrdom, then Holcombe’s vision is arguably tilted to a lighter French Impressionism. If these comparisons are all from painting rather than photography, I would argue that one of the determining characteristics of current large scale digital photography is the implied competition in its scale, colour and theme with painting. Its invitation is towards the painterly – the capacity of digital media to not only shoot the photograph, and develop it, but to reshape and manipulate visual truth. In wet photography, there was always the gradual archaeology of images slowly scraping away out of a fog of chemical bath to emerge into clarity, in a slowly revealed dusting off of the image into view. The digital domain allows for an image to be adjusted, touched, shifted, stretched or manipulated in a plethora of filmic/computer intrusions. It can be mediated in ways that the presumed directness of earlier technologies of photography did not allow. Holcombe’s work is straight photography; in the sense of images being seen for their immediacy, but left unmanipulated. He is following the traditional aesthetic dictates of shooting a number of views, and selecting the one that works – rather than ‘dressing the wounds’ or trying to remodel, lift or manipulate in the ‘virtual darkroom’ of the computer raw file.
From the 19th century, all art was locked into a collaboration with photography: either in how images were produced, or documented; certainly with what an image meant. To which theorist Walter Benjamin in 1936 offered this model of comparison:
Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.
The ‘multiple fragments’ assembled here build a jigsaw puzzle view of Wagga Wagga and the Riverina; these photographs are free of the postmodern smugness that readily sees rural townships as victims; somehow encased in the amber of the past, out of touch from modernity and the supposed international flavour of Sydney style. Wry references exist in Holcombe’s images to dissolution, or kitsch signage of words atop faded pink flamingo paintwork emblazoned on a country motel – but are never finger-pointing; rather they are affectionate glances at some of our own country strayness, or oddity. I like this aspect of Holcombe’s vision; these buildings and landscapes are frozen glimpses of well loved, ragged relatives he has invited into his own backyard. He is a part of this landscape he views; of it, and within it. They are not provocations to action, or cheap shots that might be exposing some poorly dressed architecture. The unpeopled landscape is a tradition a contemporary Australian painter/drawer such as John Wolseley has long espoused. To him, the people in a landscape are very particular to a certain time and place, and prone to change and reinterpretation. The paintings from the 1940s or 1970s where figures have specific clothes or hairstyle lock them firmly into a certain style or time period. Paintings and photographs that are of an ‘unoccupied’ landscape and do not have a human referent can be free to exist in any time period; whether the Holcombe photographs here were shot in the 1950s, 1990s or now is left ambiguous, and consequently they gain in the emphasis this ambiguity restores to the theme of ghost traces. It likens these photographs to a series of footprints left behind; the residue traces of what has occurred.
At times, the CIVIC is in how we have scarred the landscape, and built monuments that no longer, if ever, suited the purpose for which they were built. Churches or University auditoriums seem scattered into the flat, dry bush like so many clay golems, inertly rising out of the ground, overgrown in pools of nails, broken glass, peeling paint and the steady roll of red dust slowly reclaiming ground. CIVIC is in how we occupy this rural landscape; I see it as a comment on habitat, but there is no central ‘message’ from Holcombe about flimsiness, decay, or even neglect. Every image, every digital photograph – is laced, not with sweet poison, but with the sense of hope imbedded in every small yellow stake hammered into the ground. The vast landscape scheduled for some civic melancholy hell of a sprawling housing development is also a ‘sign’, (sometimes literally, in the small, square, central signboard in the unyielding brown void) – of faith in the future. That future might be some developer’s cloth horse fakeville city, a gated facade Cherryville or Slumberland, all prefabricated Las Vegas but no glitz – but nevertheless it is a constant, inescapable blade of green regrowth of the spirit reaching out through burnt black embers. This essential optimism is the light that Holcombe pulls out of every one of these images; they are salutary, fully invested in place, and the society that beats within it. They are less about beauty in decay than they are affirmations of the resilience of the Wagga Wagga and Riverina region.
Instead of ‘illustration’, each photograph is offered in Holcombe’s works as a portrait always waiting to be ‘completed’: either by the spectator, the photographer revisiting it, or both. As writer Jean Baudrillard stressed, in arguing that the photographer is merely some kind of unwitting ‘accomplice’ to the object:
The silence of photographs. Without really being able to explain why, this is one of the most valuable and one of the most original qualities of the photographic image, as opposed to cinema, television, etc., which always tries to silence, albeit unsuccessfully.
The Murrumbidgee flour mills subsumed at night in layered brown cake picked out by golden orbs of lights are at first sight as dense as mud. At large scale, you realise the background elements are littered with a sea of purple – colour flecks leap out of the field. Regrowth, emerging out of a stage set back view of the burned out husk of the St Vincent’s building on Fitzmaurice St are part of a series of ‘shells’ of buildings that Holcombe has been photographing: they become monolithic pictorial ‘thumbprints’ of the stains our society has left through its actions. Always, nature returns as shadow, husk, shell, empty garment, and collector of our decades upon decades of detritus. The mangled bike lilting in the riverbed, the rock poised before the water tank – again, his images revisit the monolith as solemn statue in the emptiness, towards the sublime in art. There is a playful eye at work poised at the motel sign, or shop fronts, and a genuine social healing in looking at this scarification of buildings upon the land – erosion and rebirth bound hand in glove.
The art writer James Elkins describes painting as blending different moments into a smooth coherence… as opposed to the single, decisive moment caught in photography… Whilst this identifies the immediacy or the ‘strange connivances’ Elkins sees in the photograph, he charts this notion that:
photographs clip out instants in time, and since we see in overlapping moments and usually base our sense of a person on a fluid sequence of moments and motions, a single photograph can often seem wrong. (Painters can blend moments, so that few oil portraits have the weirdness of snapshots.)
It is a useful address to the concept of a single, decisive image as opposed to the additive nature of building a drawing, painting or collage by the intervention of starts, pauses and starting again. There are thematic decisions throughout Holcombe’s photography that claw back this contested territory of ‘strange connivances’ – the work is better encountered in series, holistically, than in the single, isolated image. It accumulates to read as a collective metaphor through relation to the other photographs in this very ‘weirdness of snapshots’ that lends the rural melancholy to this CIVIC series. One photograph prominently identifies a white paint topped surveyor’s stake rudely pegged into the ground. It is the space where renewal has been slated to occur, mapped and pinned into place.
Dr. Neill Overton
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, 1936, in Iluminations, London, Jonathan Cape, 1970, pp. 219-53. Jean Baudrillard, The Art of Disappearance, in N. Zurbrugg, ed., Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Aust., pub., 1997, p.31. James Elkins, The Object Stares Back, Harcourt Inc. Pub., 1996, p.28.