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.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

LA flora

Joyce Campbell: Crown Coach Botanicals
Two Rooms
18 September - 18 October 2008

In this extraordinary exhibition we see six small unique Ambrotype photographs on glass plates, and thirty much larger works, prints on paper, taken in small editions off wet-plate Ambrotypes. These strange blurred and specked images are of plants (all useful and sort after species) Campbell has found in the Los Angeles region where she now lives. Looking at them is like going back in time a hundred and fifty years.

This is intended, for it is part of a massive botanical documentation project where the specimens function as an inventory and map of the historical movement of various communities within that great Californian city. Campbell uses a truck as a mobile field darkroom, making her Ambrotypes on location, and recording where she finds the plants (now growing as ‘weeds’), figuring out what they were used for, and by whom.

Yet despite this preoccupation with history one wonders why this artist is being a replicator? She doesn’t need to dabble in nostalgia (it is embedded in the visual results of her research) when her track record shows she can be an innovative inventor of new image making methods. Here she is a mere virtuoso. Albeit a scholarly one.

Though Campbell is recreating a very old method, instead of pushing the medium like say Stephen Pippin, the images are undeniably mesmerising. The specimens, varying in shape, texture and density, are seen through poured upon and chemically stained glass so that marbled bubbled blobs, streaks and blemishes float in front of the vegetation, but gravitating towards the edges of each plate. These technical ‘deformities’ are visually compelling, and if she were to tell us the details of what these plants represent to various groups of people, perhaps that might detract from their mystique.

After all Campbell could do the same documentary project with modern equipment, aiming at crystal-clear, coloured images - but she is deliberately rejecting that. She wants images that visually breathe ‘history’ so they serve as a sort of ‘archaeological’ data that provides information. That brings with it a sort of sentimental reminiscing that invariably accompanies the method, a pining nostalgia (call it 'melancholy') that cannot be removed.

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