The Self and The Other

OCA study blog | Andrew Fitzgibbon

Study visit: Impressions Gallery

I attended the Impressions Gallery study visit (https://weareoca.com/education/impressions-gallery-visit-portfolio-review/), which comprised a curator led viewing of Chloe Dewe Mathew’s In Search of Frankenstein, with discussion of curatorial practices; an ‘in discussion session’ with the gallery director (Anne McNeill) and programme lead (Dr Pippa Oldfield) talking about the operation of a publicly funded gallery and how they work with emerging artists’; and a round-table portfolio review. (pdf of agenda OCA workshop). Three other OCA students attended, along with an OCA tutor.

This post reflects upon my personal learnings from the day rather than critically reviewing the exhibition itself.

  1. What constitutes and exhibition and distinguishes it from a display of photos? I’m sometimes perplexed by the ‘number of images’ requirement in OCA assignments – it can feel like an arbitrary call from assignment to assignment and doesn’t necessarily match what I would like to communicate through a work. However, I do appreciate the concept of aligning work to a brief. A requirement for joining a local artist organisation near me is ‘must have sufficient work for an exhibition’ – I couldn’t decide what this meant myself so it led to my question at Impressions.  Some context here was that CDM’s work was previously shown in the British Library, in a smaller space with fewer pieces, yet was still an exhibition. The informed answer was that any exhibition could be one piece of work if that communicated something meaningful by itself (though, I suspect the punters would feel a little duped). Importantly, there is no tacit understanding of the number of pieces that might be required, it is about communication of a coherent idea.
  2. Curatorial practices – there was a wide ranging discussion around this area. Some points I took away:
    • Needs to speak to the audiences of the gallery and be consistent with the gallery’s purpose (Impressions’ is to help people understand the world through photography). Specifically that shows are designed to allow the audience to engage at various levels by providing supplementary information alongside the exhibition (without distracting from the visual) on background to the work itself and the artist for example. The aim is to make it accessible not mysterious. For the CDM exhibition, there was a video of an artist’s talk, textual information about the project, a display cabinet with various editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (with cover illustrations speaking to the ‘monster of the time’).
    • Display must be perfect – Impressions explained at length the attention to detail that goes into putting on a show, with the objective of making a ‘perfect’ display that in no way detracts from the artist’s work. I had a strong feeling throughout the day of how visually led the gallery is, with conceptual thinking kept very much below the surface but available to those who wanted it.
  3. Let the photos speak for themselves? I’d always been slightly puzzled by the use of this phrase in OCA circles as photos clearly cannot and do not speak for themselves. While I understand that context should not lead the visual and a viewer should be allow to engage with a work on their own terms, making no contextual information available to viewers who want more, seems a source of frustration. Impressions didn’t subscribe to the view of letting photos speak for themselves, but did stress that they would never knowingly direct an audience in what they should think and that contextual information is kept apart from the visuals.
  4. Portfolio review.  Here I reference my own two pieces of work I took along as prints (foodbank and self-portrait) but have borrowed ideas discussed in the context of some of the other portfolio reviews, which could equally well apply to my own work.
    • Visually led – while the reason for the work is important, that it should work visually is vitally important. As students, we spend so much time reading and talking about theory that there is a risk that the concept eats the visual, resulting in work that is less than visually engaging and, I would suggest, doesn’t communicate well. Akin to this, is a work being digestible for the viewer. Similar to the way that curatorial practices consider exhibitions that will speak to an audience. If there is too much going on in a set, it can become confusing and difficult / impossible to read. In my own foodbank project it was suggested that the image talk both about the building under renovation and and the work of the foodbank (which they do) and it might have been more visually impactful to simplify to talking just about the building with the foodbank as context – also that this would have allowed a consistent colour pallet. Proposed edit is below.
  • I agree that this is visually much stronger than my edit. I also observe that the less than optimal visual was apparent as soon as the work was displayed laid out as prints, but not necessarily when viewed one-by-one on a screen. But, perhaps a grid layout on screen would reveal problems? There is a clear learning about the mediation of perception through the screen here. However, the proposed edit wouldn’t meet the brief for the number of images required. An option would be to revisit the edit, but I think I’ve learned from this and will just carry the learning forward.
  • Coincidentally, I was listening on BBC 6 Music to an interview with Suede singer Brett Anderson, about their new album. He was asked about the narrative for the album – he explained that there wasn’t so much a narrative as that would make it a concept album (eg Pink Floyd’s Wall) and he doesn’t believe audiences necessarily listen to music in that way any more. However, he did feel that the album had a consistent ‘mood’. It is called ‘blue hour’. There was a comment that the revised edit resembled ‘surveillance’ images and comments on the colour pallet. Again the similarity between visual art and music struck me – as the tone of music sets a mood, the colour tones of images create a mood. I felt the mood in CDM’s exhibition was cold and foreboding – it spoke to the ‘foregrounded’ narrative of Frankenstein – gave the audience a hook.
  • What sort of work do I want to make? This came up in the context of my self-portrait work and my comments that I did not enjoy self-portrait work as I found something grim and over self-reflective in it – even if I do appreciate its value as an exercise. It allowed me to see the value in the self-portrait assignment being an honest assessment that this is not work I want to do in the future. I explained I wanted to make work that looks outwards and asks questions about what we see, and is based in the present. A reflection of my own identity and connection to my upcoming essay work.
  • In my subsequent tutorial on the self-portrait work, I mentioned that while I felt the work was resolved in terms of images, it somehow did not feel like enough to show on its own (I’m cognisant that it is a piece based on an assignment brief, rather than a lengthy body of work). My tutor suggested experimenting with some contextual additions to the work, without necessarily fully resolving them – to show the direction if the work were to be made into a more substantial piece [feedback to be written up separately].

5. Artist’s statements – I’d previously heard the views of the Impressions’ team expressed during a board meeting and asked them to be shared with the other students during the discussion. No value is seen in statements that obscure and mystify in the context of a public gallery. Advice is to explain clearly what a work is about and avoid all unnecessary jargon. Agreed that a statement made in the context of academic work, reference to theory would be necessary to demonstrate engagement with the conceptual framework. However, also suggested that different artist statements are needed for different audiences and they should be adapted to the context in which the work is being shown.

I summary, a hugely valuable experience that will inform my future editing of work and its presentation (specifically the context I provide for my work and in my artist statements).

2 thoughts on “Study visit: Impressions Gallery

    1. There will be some changes to the presentation I think – drawing inspiration from Martha Rosler’s Bowery text perhaps. Though, I’m not planning to work it into a fully resolved work for these purposes.

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