Camus Wyatt - reviewed
a thin streak of light
Photospace Gallery, Wellington
16 February - 23 March 2019
Reviewed by Mary-Jane Duffy for PhotoForum, March 2019
In the artist’s statement for his latest exhibition, a thin streak of light, Camus Wyatt writes about the ideas that connect the images. He links his dog walks on Paekakariki beach with Charles Darwin and John Berger, Rembrandt and Chekhov. The writing endeavors to bridge the two very different series that make up the exhibition—a bird series and a series derived from x-rays of paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn.
The Bird series - Blue Sonata is a limited edition series of transparencies mounted on light boxes. The images range from a couple of standard bird-in-flight images to some visually complex form-in-motion studies. As Camus says in his artist’s statement, he has photographed seagulls while watching his dog chasing them on the beach. “Watching those birds scatter off in all directions, I’ve remembered Charles Darwin’s thought about ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’ ”.
The first time I saw the exhibition, I was with a tour group I lead once a month around the galleries of Wellington. The group unanimously enjoyed it. All of the work is a digital blue, quite similar to an Yves Klein blue—which is hard to dislike. One of the women in the group declared that if she were to buy one of the bird-in-flight images, she’d call it Jonathan Livingston Seagull; which made me think about those two very palatable images and how they detracted from the other more abstracted ones in the exhibition. Without these Jonathan Livingston seagulls, the very painterly and interesting ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’ could be viewed through a more interesting lens—one that connects painting and motion through a photographer’s lens to express other things.
In his artist’s statement, Camus also mentions John Berger’s influential series of essays, Ways of Seeing. I’m not sure how Berger’s ideas relate to these bird images except in the literal sense that a photograph of something can disguise its true nature so that you can see it in a more interesting way. The way in this exhibition, a bird-in-flight is abstracted enough by the photographic process to look like a photograph of a dancer or a multi-media performance artist caught in theatre lighting. That wasn’t really what Berger was on about but it doesn’t stop these very abstracted images from being intriguing to look at. However, I would have enjoyed them more if I didn’t know they were seagulls disturbed by an enthusiastic dog.
The series of nine photographs in the exhibition derived from x-rays of paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn is in many ways more interesting. This quiet series of framed prints layers up a number of ideas about history, photographic processes and received imagery. Camus has sourced the images from the internet “through the pale blue glow of [his] laptop screen”, cropped and printed them on luscious Hahnemuhle cotton photo rag paper. For me, the blue of the photographs connects them to Holland—I’m thinking of Delftware—and made me feel like I was looking through time.
James Gilbert at Photospace explains that the images are forensic museum photographs available online and that the only changes that occur to the original images is during downloading; and that these incremental changes are analogous to those that happen through the multiple stages of the analogue printing process.
And of course this is the place where Berger becomes relevant. “When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result its meaning changes. Or, more exactly, “its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings.” (Ways of Seeing, p19) The photograph’s subjects are out of place and time—two charming self-portraits of Rembrandt himself, a crucifixion, a rape, a portrait of Minerva, an eye, a woman’s face and an abstraction. My favourite is Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, c.1659. Jacob and the angel seem to be in a love embrace rather than a wrestle. The angel gazes at Jacob with such intensity I can’t help but think of Xas and Sobran in Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck. Surely this is what Berger means about multiplying and fragmenting. In our post-modern 21st century context, the problems of too many meanings tends to be disregarded, and the value instead placed on the re-invigoration of a historical painting with new meaning/s.
Camus writes “In Rembrandt's centuries-old paintings I see the same vitality, life and movement as I do in those birds. I've never seen an original, but I can reach out to them. Figures appear dreamlike – often sad, always beautiful… A painting’s life remains in motion in the digital world, just as a bird's flight leaves ripples in the sky.”
I like this idea that a painting’s life remains in motion in our digital age that the past as Chekhov writes in The Student, is “an unbroken chain of events all flowing from one to another… and when […] touched one end, the other end trembled.” So even though the bird series is uneven and a little predictable in parts, the Rembrandt series saves the exhibition with its nod to the multi-faceted world of images that we inhabit.
Mary-Jane Duffy is a freelance art writer and poet. She manages programmes at Te Auaha, NZ Institute of Creativity, and moonlights as a tour guide for ArtExplore on weekends.