Mark Bell and Denise Hawrysio
13 May 1999 - 26 June 1999
Opening Reception 13 May 1999 8pm
Escape from Photography
Slide presentation: Wednesday, May 19, 1999: 7 pm
Escape From Photography
Photography is tyranny. Everyone knows this.
From the unwitting victim of the surprise snapshot to the subjects of Bourke-White’s Auschwitz photographs immediately upon liberation, no one wishes to be photographed. To be photographed is to have one’s identity fixed forever more so that, in some instances, the subject’s subsequent existence becomes dedicated to a reassertion of identity over the supremacy of the photograph at all costs. That is the meaning of every celebrity suicide of the twentieth century. It is the measure of the century itself.
Photography has extended its domain over every form of art. Representational painting has suffered this absolutism most acutely. Much of twentieth century painting can be seen as a series of paroxysmal reactions to the apparent co-opting of the representational image by photography; first the flight into increasing abstraction, then successive efforts at giganticism, narrative painting, and the eventual abandonment of the canvas altogether. The desire to escape photography may not be the only painterly aesthetic of this century, but it surely is a governing impulse.
Yet the painting of Mark Bell has eluded the encompassing grip of photography on representation. This has occurred not by strategies of avoidance or an outright denial of the representational tradition, but by delving straight into the core nature of painting. Bell’s method is uncomplicated and begins with the plasticity of the paint itself. A rejection of palette determines that representation can only occur through minute graduations of tone and with the subtlest use of layering on the canvas. Bell’s paintings restore to us the gravitas of works that are products of craft — itself a swipe at the technological processes of photography — and there is a perfect logic to the fact that as a result they literally cannot be photographed. These works allow us to speak in an unembarrassed way of the essence of painting because it is there for everyone to see — although it entirely resists capture (particularly in the sense a photograph is “captured”).
There is also something quite bloody-minded, even aggravating, about paintings that demand to be looked at as part of the figuratism but then, in almost the same breath, reject the easy familiarity and self-congratulation of that tradition. Bell’s work is no argument for some imagined neoclassicism; it encompasses many of the strategies of non-figurative work even as it rejects their conclusions.
If Bell has found what seems like one of the few technical means to preserve representation while frustrating photography’s attempt to purloin the painterly image, his works actually go much further than that. His choice of subject harkens back to the nineteenth century and the birth of photography — the historical moment, in other words, when painting lost its exclusive claim on representation. The subjects are those who were the first victims of photography: the infirm, the insane, the criminal. Photography at this point was seen for what it is: a method of surveillance. Simply by basing his work on these photographs, Bell makes a gesture, admittedly hopeless, towards restoring the subjectivity of these models in a manner that the epistemological conventions of the nineteenth century ruled impossible. Perhaps in a way that photography itself may render impossible.
Denise Hawrysio’s work, on the other hand, comes at photography from within. Here the arena is resolutely domestic and the intent is undeniably an attack on that quality in photography that suggests each image is its own most perfect representation. Hers is not just a purely technical exercise, but an effort that would be inconsequential without a potent subject — in this instance, Hawrysio’s family as discovered, or rediscovered, through the discards of her father’s hobby photographs.
The recasting of these works suggests the ever-complicated ground of familial relations and implicitly casts aspirations on the attempt to fix them through any means. Situated in an unavoidably psychoanalytic realm, these photographs prompt speculation on the part of the viewer (Who is that child? What is the history here? What relation is that woman to the photographer? To Hawrysio herself?) that transcends gossip by suggesting the elusiveness of identity and authorship. So the domestic scene becomes the stage for a critique of the very act of photography — the act in which Hawrysio herself, no matter how indirectly, is engaged. There is no attempt to resolve this paradox into some more simple equation, and that is the strength of the work. Those who view the photographs find themselves with as unresolved an attitude towards the medium as seems to be the case for Hawrysio herself towards her family secrets, in what is a rare coming-together of aesthetic critique with the complexities of personal history. The doubling back is complete. Again the core element of surveillance in the act of photography is trounced.
Photography is well beyond being a mere byproduct of the technological revolution that was begun in the nineteenth century and found full flower in our own epoch; in some sense it literally is the twentieth century. It exemplifies the twentieth century preference for self-reflexivity over history, this century’s almost obscene grasping for absolutes through technological imperatives which necessarily lead only to greater uncertainties, its manifest banalities and sanctities. Here, in Bell and Hawrysio’s work, there is the proof that it is possible to engage with the photographic process on terms other than those that are solely its own, that photography can finally be seen for what it is: not an end-point, but just a particular form of representation, as irresolute, fractured and open to interpretation — or in this case expropriation — as any other.
Far from unnerving, this should excite us to new betrayals.
– Davis Weaver
Mark Bell graduated in 1989 from the Ontario College of Art and Design, spending two years at the college’s now defunct New York campus. After several more years in New York working at strange jobs and living in tiny, little rooms he returned to Toronto where he now lives and paints. He is one of the founding members of the artist collective Painting Disorders.
Denise Hawrysio was born in Toronto and currently lives in London, UK. she received her BFA from Queen’s University, Canada and her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Group exhibitions have included the Aalsat Biennial in Belgium, (I)Disneyland After Dark at the Kunsthaus Bethanien in Berlin and the Uppsala Konstmuseum in Sweden and solo shows at the project space of Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf and at Articule, Montreal. Hawrysio’s works are in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada. She is presently a tutor at the Architectural Association in London and will be mounting a solo exhibition in the spring of 2000 at Darontreal.
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