Sunday, 20 September 2009
In Anthony Gayton’s new series of photographs, the image-groupings are named after the four elements – Air, Earth, Fire and Water – that the Ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles considered to be the basis of all matter. Empedocles also thought that two basic forces, Love and Strife, interacted to bring together, or alternatively to separate, these primal substances. Individual human temperaments were made up of varying mixtures of the four elements or ‘humours’, and these mixtures in turn governed both health and emotion. This aspect of Empedocles’ belief system has survived until the present day, and still plays a role in the Jungian system of psychoanalysis. This intellectual framework is clearly relevant to the images featured in the current exhibition.
Gayton has long been known for sumptuous images that feature homoerotic themes. These follow one aspect of contemporary photographic practice by being based, in many cases, on Old Master paintings, His new photographs differ from what he has made previously in several important respects. The first is that image is now firmly married to text. Each photograph is accompanied by a poem. Poem and photograph, however, often seem to contradict one another, and the web of references and allusions is complex. A sequence of four pictures devoted to Air, for example, features the fantasies of a young woman who dreams of finding the perfect partner. In the first, we see a female figure plunging earthward, with a church spire in the background. Despite its gender, the image suggests the fall of Icarus, who soared too near the sum on borrowed wings. In the second image, there is a young woman holding a book, open to display an engraving after Titian’s ‘Noli me tangere’, where the risen Christ rejects the Magdalen’s attempt to touch him [John 20:17]. Behind her on the wall there is a version of Herbert Draper’s painting ‘The Lament for Icarus’, a once celebrated Victorian work in the collection of the Tate galleries in London. The third image places the protagonist in church, flanked by two young men who are identified as her brothers. One of these men holds an apple, which suggests that the young woman is a new Eve, but also that the Biblical situation has been reversed – it is the male who tempts and the female who is tempted. The fourth and final image in the set shows the ideal male as an angel [an equivalent for Icarus] in a stained glass window. Above him a scroll says Touch Me [Not]’ – the English version of the phrase ‘Noli Me Tangere’. His midriff is wrapped in a fluttering loincloth made from the British flag. The message is that the ideal male remains forever out of reach, and that his unattainability is somehow related to his Britishness.
Succeeding sections entitled Earth, Water and Fire, each containing four images, tell the story of a marriage undertaken for the wrong reasons, and its collapse thanks to same sex attraction between the husband and another man. The verdict, according to the poem attached to one of the images in ‘Fire’, the last of the sections, is that “You confuse moral contradictions with judgements of the heart.” In the accompanying image, the ideal male has been transformed into a creature who is half-man, half-beast, wounded and suffering because of his dual nature, Yet the spouses nevertheless contrive to build a relationship where their mutual animality enables them to join – the accompanying image is simply a discarded, bloodied wedding dress, The final picture shows a woman in her coffin [the protagonist’s mother] surrounded by three young men and a young woman [the protagonist herself, her brothers and her husband]. It suggests a kind of bitter reconciliation both with the ambiguities of gender and the ambiguities of human relationships:
But Hell Fire or Holy Spirit, there is no difference in a flame.
Lillian turned her musing, with her mother, back to earth,
Content in the simplicity of mortal life.
An image detached from the main series, entitled Whitman, and featuring two nude males, one holding a knife, the other with a severed head on a dish, uses a quotation from the American poet as its text: “Are you the new person drawn towards me? To begin with take a warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose. Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal? Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?” The world of same-sex relationships, the picture says, is no safer or more secure than that of conventionally heterosexual ones.
Gayton’s current work is interesting from a number of different points of view. It is an example of the way in which photography is now challenging, and even regularly surpassing, more traditional media as a vehicle for serious moral and psychological messages. At the same time, it demonstrates how the colour photograph, with its mastery of detail and now its mastery of hue and tone, is increasingly attracted to the aesthetic values of late 19th century painting. It is impossible to miss the Pre-Raphaelite influence in many of these images. The second picture in the Air sequence, where the young woman has tumbling auburn hair, like one of the women painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is a good example. The stained glass image in the same group is related to the designs for stained glass made by another leading Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones, There is also an inheritance, via the Pre-Raphaelites, from the Italian quattrocento. The wounded half-beast in Fire is a close cousin of the mourning satyr in Piero di Cosimo’s Death of Procris. The kind of fantasy Piero di Cosimo specialized in has found its way into contemporary photography through the magic of digital imaging.
Of course there is also another influence, much nearer to hand, which is that of the hallucinatory veristic Surrealism practiced by Salvador Dali. Yet this is certainly not used very directly – Dali’s characteristic distortions are absent, and are replaced not only by art-historical references to the pre-Modern epoch, but also by allusions to the history of photography itself. Vernacular photography – by which I mean photography made without artistic intent, is referenced, for example, in the wedding scene that concludes the Earth sequence. Not coincidentally, this is the only picture in the full sequence that is in black-and-white.
One of the great pleasures of Gayton’s work is, obviously, his technical ability. What I relish far more than this, however, is its sophisticated play of reference. Here at long last is photography for grown ups.
(Catalogue essay for an exhibition, Barcelona)
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