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.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Perfect placement of props, yet intense

Roger Ballen
Curated by Leonhard Emmerling and the artist
St. Paul St
May 7 – May 29, 2009

This major survey of South African photographer Roger Ballen covers a period of about 24 years. His 48 black and white silver gelatin prints range from the sentimental and maudlin to the ferociously savage. Some are deeply disturbing, others ludicrously corny.

The ‘look’ is that of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange’s documentary depression photography, mixed with more than a pinch of Diane Arbus, but somehow combined with more extreme elements that include the occasional feral viciousness of a Hannah Hoch collage, David Lynch film or Francis Bacon painting. The prevalent theme is that of rural people living in a state of economic hardship, often in conditions that are not squalid but extremely severe.

The mood is that of deprivation that leans into degradation (many of the subjects don’t seem nourished or healthy) combined surprisingly with great theatricality. Not real degradation as seen in some recent Russian photography where the subjects were poor, pitifully drunk and exposing intimate body parts, nor theatricality with wildly imaginative props like Boyd Webb or (blacker and much creepier) Joel–Peter Witkin.

Here there is no exploitative humiliation going on: Ballen knows many of his subjects well and though at times he gets them to improvise he always is in absolute control. The placement of elements within every composition is exceptionally tight. Almost irritatingly over-considered. The viewer is totally in thrall to the artist. Nothing’s negotiable. No informal arrangements anywhere. These images are very precise, never loose.

In fact they try too hard, even though, in a surrealist manner, some have considerable emotional impact. You can see the strain, the struggle for perfection. And they are extremely knowing. They combine cuteness (with kittens, puppies and white rats) with symbols of suffering (gnarled worn feet, striated pock-marked walls, decrepit tin roofs) and some over-used symbols of hope (white doves).

Linear configurations play a big role, creating a vivid contrast for angular, squat or humped human forms. We see a lot of Dubuffet (occasionally Murakami and Dunham) influenced chalk drawings on walls (I don’t think they are found; they are especially created), along with hanging tangled wires, falling clumps of roots or leafless branches, tubular table legs and entangled coat-hangers. Thin forms; dark skinny shadows.

There is a connection between art’s representation of extreme emotion and stagy theatricality. Oddly they invariably seem to appear together, especially in someone like Bacon. Yet Bacon loved to destroy an ordered painting, to throw in an unpredictable element that could ruin or conversely improve it. Ballen would never do that. I suspect his temperament is far too anal and averse to real risk taking.

That is why I’m not convinced that Ballen is that an important artist, though many of his images are unquestionably beautiful. The show seems too retro: too fifties with the wall drawings (Boarding House), too thirties with the austere, very staged, dreamlike interiors (Shadow Chamber). Though not over excited by this work - they are not of our time, technically or visually - I am pleased to have had the chance to think about his images. Stroll along to St. Paul St’s two galleries and have a look yourself.

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