Whitehot Magazine

January 2010, Northern Art Prize 2009

Pavel Buchler, Eclipse, 2009
Mixed Media; dimensions variable; Installation detail
Courtesy Leeds Art Gallery


Northern Art Prize
Leeds Art Gallery
The Headrow
Leeds, LS1 3AA
27 November 2009 through 21 February 2010

Pavel BÏ‹chler, Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Rachel Goodyear, Matt Stokes

Rosalind Krauss’s two-part essay ‘Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America’ (1977) argues convincingly that the art of that period was deeply, and not altogether consciously, conditioned by photography’s ‘implacable hold’. Rooms, the 1976 inaugural exhibition at New York’s P.S.1., is her now-famous example of this. Featuring works such as Gordon Matta Clark’s Doors, Floors, Doors (cut-outs from the building’s structure) and Lucio Pozzi’s P.S.1 Paint (abstract paintings colour-matched to original paint on the derelict walls), Rooms provided evidence of cropping, reduction, flattening, and the ‘point-to-point’ physical connections of indexicality. The 2009 Northern Art Prize’s shortlisted artists each present work that is structured, above all, photographically, demonstrating that this medium’s grip on the contemporary imagination has not loosened over the past three decades.

Pavel BÏ‹chler is the most experienced of the shortlisted artists. Informed by critical theory of photography, he has, for part of his multifaceted installation, taken mundane found objects – balls of many sizes and states of repair: a football, pool ball (no. 10), tiny bouncing ball and an even tinier transparent plastic sphere – and wedged them between lens and light source in an arrangement of Leitz projectors. The resulting overlapped circles of light are starkly poetic, but it is difficult to decode them or to move beyond the visual to the social content of the found objects. The flatness of the projected image is an understated counterpoint to the banks of bulky apparatus required to produce it. A small, playful piece, Il Castello (2007), places together two worn-down pencils positioned vertically, like two towers. What is left of the embossed brand names reads, from right to left, ‘Castell-O’, Italian for castle. This is an extremely economical architectural model. Both of these works operate within the territory of the index: in Eclipse light is physically oriented; the pencils perhaps refer to ‘work’ or even ‘handiwork’, having been physically depleted during the completion of an unknown task.

Rachel Goodyear, Mating Call (detail), 2009
Pencil and watercolour on paper 60cm x 84cm
Courtesy Leeds Art Gallery

Rachel Goodyear’s drawings are usually understood as occupying a gap between fiction and reality; they have been written about in terms of the uncanny and the fairy-tale. But here they seem to continue the exhibition’s trend toward the photographic, with allusions to fashion photography’s darker side made via formal flatness and scaled-down dimensions. Many of Goodyear’s animal images, in particular, appear to have been clipped from National Geographic and Photoshopped into strange new arrangements. Stark distinctions between dark and light areas suggest the effects of a flash; in Darkness Coming (2008) the female subject’s bodily outline contrasts sharply with the rest of her flesh. In the beautiful and haunting Mating Call (2009), a graphite deer with pure white (flash-blinded?) eyes participates in indexicality. Hovering above the creature is a crystalline-frozen cloud, its breath: an index of its own bodily vitality. The artist’s distinctive touch in the pencil rendering might similarly index her own body.

Both the duo Crow & Rawlinson and Matt Stokes work directly with film and video. Stokes, the Becks Futures 2006 winner, seems intent on reinforcing his ‘hot young artist’ status by producing a fairly traditional but glamorous film that allows gallery visitors to vicariously experience mosh-pit sweatiness. Shot in anthropological-documentary style on 16mm film, the cinematic big-screen installation, complete with an extremely noisy noise-rock soundtrack, promises a glimpse into the life-shaping intensity of subculture community. Though the film does not deliver the artistic or intellectual impact of some of Stokes’ earlier works, for example The Gainsborough Packet, it seems appropriate to predict a career in Hollywood or MTV for this film-maker. Crow & Rawlinson make more use of film’s potential as vehicle for thoughtful juxtapositions. The unassuming but powerful film Two Eternal Flames was the show’s standout piece for this reviewer. It draws upon classical and sacred myths, bringing together (via projection) torches burning in two distinct locations in Miami, USA: one represents US friendship with its neighbours, the other commemorates invasion. In an interesting move, another of the duo’s video works is displayed in a temporary booth centred in a space filled with selections from the Gallery’s paintings collection. The possible relationships between their four-screen work The Four Horsemen – Death (2009), a compelling piece that exploits the manipulative power of Photoshop-style digital editing, and the salon-style gallery hang are worth musing over.

Matt Stokes, these are the days, 2008-09
Two-channel Super 16 mm film installation with audio, 6:26 minutes; Dimensions variable;
Installation view
Commissioned by Arthouse and co-produced by ZieherSmith, New York
Courtesy Leeds Art Gallery


Crowe and Rawlinson, Two Eternal Flames, 2008
High definition video loop
Courtesy Leeds Art Gallery

Significantly, the Prize’s director Pippa Hale does not claim that the artists selected represent the best working in the North this year, let alone in the country. She prefers to characterize the exhibition - with another photographic reference - as ‘a snapshot of the sorts of artists that are practicing here’. While this is an honest acknowledgement of the subjectivity and, perhaps partisan, preconceptions involved in judging contemporary art, it does seem to downplay the value of the work on display as being less than exceptional, reinforcing an outmoded view of the North as culturally inferior to Southern or European cities. This ‘snapshot’ approach (a snapshot being defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an informal photograph, taken quickly’) is of course an established visual art strategy. Sean McCrum, in his 1991 article ‘Snapshot Photography’, considers the inclusivity of this particular form, noting that ‘the receiver’s view is as creative and subjective in its construction of an image, as its maker’s’. And perhaps this is, after all, a valuable quality of the Northern Art Prize: a reflection and celebration of the supportive environment that exists for the arts in the North, rather than a reductive isolation of stars.

Postscript: If you do make it along to the show, spare some time for the much talked about the Victorian designed Tiled Hall gallery café.

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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