Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Victoria & Albert Museum
Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism
© the artist, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
This photograph, nearly life size, sets up an unusual relationship with the viewer. Three adolescent girls are in a gracious dining room. But this is no ordinary group or family portrait, despite the fact that we are told the girls are close friends and well known to the artist, and the setting is the family home of one of them. They don't look at each other, nor do they gaze out at us. Are they bored, thoughtful, distressed? Is this a moment captured in real time (photography’s great strength)? Or are they posing for the camera?  Is the girl on the left really distressed or is she as she is, in order to give us the warmth and pleasure of seeing her glorious Mary Magdalen hair?  In other words, are we witnessing a performance choreographed by the artist? Or not?

Perhaps the clue is in the title. It refers to the place, not the people, suggesting a tableau rather than portraits. This picture is part of a project begun in 1996 with the help of three teenage girls, Camilla, Rohan and Stephanie. Jones has photographed them in two of their parental homes, large, comfortable houses in a village in middle England. I am reminded of Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, a fascinating series of portraits which reveal the gradual changes that come with time in four women in his life: his wife and her three sisters. He photographed them every year for over 30 years.

In the background are symbols of wealth and status: the nineteenth century portrait mounted in a heavy gilt frame and prints of men hunting on horseback might be ancestors.  A clock face in a housing resembling a classical temple; a marble fireplace and an ornate ceramic tureen on a large silver platter – which not everyone has -  are central to the picture.  The tureen and its reflection, which momentarily suggest claws, are powerfully placed. The dark space underneath the table takes up a quarter of the picture, pushing us back. Among it all, the girls light up the room with orange against the blues. They look spick and span, echoing the room’s polished and well-ordered appearance - but they are unimpressed by it.
© the artist, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

This is an earlier photograph The Dining Room (Francis Place) I  1997, which comes from Tate Britain. The notes say that the images are carefully set up, the furniture often rearranged and studio lights used, enhancing the staged atmosphere. The result is something between a staged pose, gesture or gaze, and a person’s individual character.

Why is it in an exhibition with postmodernism in the title? Because it likes fuzzy boundaries between genres, it's laid back and playful, it's ambivalent about history and tradition and because it enjoys uprooting and examining our taken-for-granted assumptions about art.


 hwww.fraenkelgallery.com    (for Nixon's Brown sisters)

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