Two and Two

2010 - by Francis Hodgson, The Financial Times

840 Words

Published: June 16, 2010.

John MacLean publishes little monographs of thoughtful pictures. The latest is called Two and Two and is on view at London’s Flowers East. The principle is straightforward. Two pictures are made of the same scene and printed together. They might be separated by a few moments, or they might be separated by a few hours. The process is deeply formalist, but not at all dry.

The artist has referred to Robert Rauschenberg’s twin paintings “Factum I” and “Factum II” as a starting point. But photography has always looked at controlled series. The release of work in series by artists such as John Baldessari or Ed Ruscha is after all merely a continuation of the natural outcome of roll film passed through the printing and editing process.

In MacLean’s hands, the doubling is normally purely photographic. He will shift focus, reframe, use a reflection, sometimes simply move the camera a few feet to get a new take on the scene. The small effects can be very strong: a wavy line of shadow up some steps is straightened in the companion view. A (beautiful) postmodernist image of a “no parking” sign becomes a high-period Hollywood lighting cameraman’s version of the same thing simply by moving round the corner. There is a games-playing element to all this: it can take a few moments to spot the connection between views.

It’s not all games, though. MacLean’s procedure has a solid cumulative effect. He doesn’t ask us, pair by pair, to decide between a “good” picture and one that is worse. He asks us instead to suspend for a time the too-rapid picking and discarding that we all do in defence against the sheer volume of photographic imagery that we see.

In Phoenix, Arizona, MacLean made a parody pair of images after the US photographer Lee Friedlander and suddenly an ordinary road crossing is a piece of art history. And while he was at it, MacLean curled the branches of a tree – which adjoin in the pair – into a shape more glorious than nature had given it in either picture alone.

Slightly further east in London, at Maureen Paley’s gallery, Hannah Starkey’s show is more conventional. This is an apparent overturning of the law by which art exhibitions are radical in inverse proportion to the rent. As such, it is in character: Starkey has a neat trick of consistently making old-fashioned pictures without losing the commercial allure of a certain edgy cachet. In fact, she has ploughed much the same furrow for quite some time; a radical change in her ideas may be overdue.

Having said that, this pared-down little show is close to being brilliant. If, as I rather hope, it is a swansong for this work, it is a good one. Starkey’s shtick for years has been to make set-up or staged photographs, invariably of youngish women, in which an implied narrative is caught by a single picture. It is crafted to look as though it might have been just a snapshot, and the effect has always been to make the viewer fill in the gaps of an apparently dramatic story whose beginnings and end we were not told. It is a process that many other photographers have explored but here, in five pictures made within the past year or so, Starkey has finally found real consistent form.

Each study is of a single woman, physically isolated in a still moment of contemplation. The picture spaces are deliberately, even lovingly, complicated. One woman, for example, studies her own appearance in a window as she smokes outside a blandly labelled television office building. She wears muted clothes, a dark trouser suit (it might be a uniform) and masculine shoes. She stands in a darkened doorway. Next to but not visible to her is a window that reflects a gleaming stretch of tarmac with a dozen different kinds of shining grey in it. The inescapable thought is that this woman is missing out. Something’s there, but not for her.

The only picture that has a title is a self-portrait. A figure holds a camera to her eye in a window, surrounded by white frames of an industrial kind, perhaps aluminium windows. Whatever they are, they are puns on the business of making framed imagery. Is she outside and reflected, or inside and screened? Hard to tell. What is most arresting is the sheer number of masks between us and the artist: the window itself, a clear plastic sheet, draped, a backlighting effect that keeps her face in darkness, and the camera. Defensive? She’s inaccessible.

These are very good studies of wistfulness, of the private person visible in public spaces. Like MacLean’s, their complexities are deliberate and well-mastered and their references to earlier pictures rich and helpful. Like MacLean’s, they show that to be a photographer in the age of the mobile phone takes more than just equipment. Neither photographer really photographs the world. Each is more interested in remaking it. By properly photographic means, naturally.

John MacLean runs until June 26,; Hannah Starkey continues until July 18,