Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Let there be Light

Laurence Aberhart
Auckland Art Gallery, New Gallery
16 February - 11 May 2008

There is probably no photographer in this country more admired than Laurence Aberhart. His images – the early ones especially - have a particular inbuilt intimacy and intensity of emotion that makes his practice especially loved. And although sometimes his shows can be repetitive, and his obsessions occasionally tiresome, his audience keeps increasing. And rightly so. As there are still people who don’t think of photography as an art, in this country his practice is a great proselytiser for The Cause. Always was, even before the mid eighties when photography started to get purchased by institutions.

This exhibition comes from City Gallery, and I imagine it looks a lot better in Auckland than Wellington - because the New Gallery’s rooms are more intimate. The AAG space looks terrific. Lovely pale grey everywhere with light bounced off the ceiling, diffuse and deflected down. The size of the rooms in relation to Aberhart’s images is exactly right.

And the show itself: I expected some of it to be repetitive and exhausting, but it isn’t. It is perfectly judged. Instead of tedious single lines of photographs there are varied clumps of images so that the viewer can explore and compare. It is fresh for the eyes, no plodding legwork and yet a substantial helping. Not a taste but a great meal.

No dull obsession with chronology either, putting works in historical sequence. Works from different periods are mixed together. I expected a big narrative emphasis from Greg O’Brien (the curator), but although there are lots of selections based on subject matter – especially light and location - often the groupings are surprisingly formal, examining shape or nuances of colour or tone.

Enough about the presentation. Aberhart’s images. Where does their appeal lie?

Well, his early works featured lots of subtle distortion coming from the lens of his 100 year old view camera (especially when perspectival lines were coming into the centre from the sides and he was avoiding frontal compositions), but he seems less interested in that now. It is safe to say Aberhart is infatuated with the properties of light and darkness and how his camera will respond, especially when using long exposure times. Certain objects – or people - glow as if illuminated from within or with a very fine aura, and sometimes light or shadow is in a delicate mist-like form, as if in a descending haze, even inside buildings. This control of light, and occasionally distortion, imbues depicted inanimate objects with a sense of inhabiting spirit. It creates an ambience of animism as if all things – even manmade artefacts – are alive.

In the recently published ‘Contemporary New Zealand Photographers’, Francis Pound has said of this artist: (the) absence of figures …weighs Aberhart’s work with its burden of melancholy….(That there is a) stillness that solicits our absorbed contemplation.

Pound’s astute observation is based on the time needed to make each exposure, that to record a sitter requires determined effort on their part. His comment about the work having a melancholic ‘weight’ is inadvertently confirmed by Greg O’Brien’s selection, for the weakest works are those including family or friends. My theory is that people disrupt the animistic vision, clog it up with real, living individuals so that the artist’s natural tenderness towards his fellow sentient creatures gets in the way of ‘emanations’ from objects.

Some writers also make much of the fact that a large amount of Aberhart’s subject matter gets demolished soon after he records it, and so that creates the melancholia Pound refers to. I think though that Aberhart’s work is not really about documentation. His practice mainly is about the construction of an image to generate an emotion, about a medium and its nuances, not about the world before the lens. The process behind the lens – in most part, not totally - is what makes his images remarkable. He is a visual artist equivalent of a distinctive novelist, like say Thomas Bernhard. Almost any subject will do. It is his treatment that so fascinates.

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