By Definition and Kevin Capon - reviewed
By Definition and The Works of Kevin Capon
Vivian Cooper Smith, Claudia Dunes. Meighan Ellis and Mish O’Neill
Sanderson Contemporary, Auckland
21 May - 10 June, 2019
Auckland Festival of Photography
Reviewed by Mary Macpherson for PhotoForum
For the Auckland Festival of Photography the Sanderson gallery created a double-handed act, a playful group show of three artists who extend the way photography presents the material world, plus one interdisciplinary artist, and a solo Kevin Capon collection of images dealing in scale and forcefully pictured subjects.
By Definition, begins with a large Mish O’Neill camera obscura image, Monte Cecilia Park 31 May, 2017, 2.30-2.55pm. The title of the one-off work tethers us to the day, and minutes within the day, when the image was made. This was when the light passed through the pinhole to the waiting photographic paper, and look, here are the tape marks where the paper was held in place. More than film-based or digital photographs, a camera obscura image reminds us of the physical act of photographing, perhaps the photographer’s equivalent of prominent brush strokes.
With its ghostly trees and a skeletal building rendered in shades of red and orange, the Monte Cecilia Park image also references the eerie beauty of infra-red surveillance images, occasions where photography takes on a covert role perhaps for political or economic purposes. The park and its buildings aren’t in need of surveillance as far as we know, but I thought of the photographer as an ‘agent’ who makes a picture and myself as a viewer reading ‘evidence’ on a white wall.
New Zealand born, Melbourne-based, Vivian Cooper Smith challenges the two dimensional surface of the photographic image, constructing and manipulating materials before photographing them. His Concrete Composition (Series 1, 2 and 3) 2015 works featured fragments of concrete, looking remarkably like pieces of biscuit, placed over coloured shapes that echo the fragments, and in one monochrome image, over a scumbled grey background. I thought of Mondrian or Matisse cut-outs, although this mightn’t be the photographer’s reference as the concrete has a social/political point to make.
On his website Cooper Smith writes of his urge, “to respond to the images of destruction and conflict that seemed to be in every TV news or website I saw. Border conflicts and national identity seem to dominate our lives and yet it can seem so arbitrary to someone on the outside.” He thought of the walls go up and come down in rubble, and of the central agency of concrete. By presenting his own version of rubble and combining it on floating colour fragments, Cooper Smith neutralises the toxic wall and looks towards our, and photography’s, ability to imagine a different future.
To further extend the challenge to concrete, the gallery had placed two massive Claudia Dunes Plastic Planters 1-1V, 2016, adjacent to Cooper Smith’s works. The weed-filled planters (I suspected the noxious Tradescantia) invited us to stroke their hefty ‘concrete’ sides. They were, in fact, a far lighter mixture of polystyrene and cast cement, reminding us of how materials can deceive and create illusion in our willing minds.
Cooper Smith’s four other images Sunset #1 - #4 2012 seduced with their colour palettes while hinting at a possible darker world beneath. Like the Concrete Compositions, the concept of photography was extended by a pre-production process. Rose Randell of the Sanderson gallery explained that Cooper Smith had photographed sunsets and digitally manipulated the photos and colours. He then printed these out, cut them and then photographed the image with the cut.
The final images, in gradated lollipop colours, beloved by sunset photographers the world over, feature strong graphic slashes. The cuts, cleverly enhanced by shadows, become elegant damage and raise a frisson about what might lie beneath and why the slash was made. Like the Concrete Compositions, two opposing forces, the sensuous world of colour and gritty physical acts, work together to produce smart and innovative works.
Meighan Ellis’s exquisite images play with perceptions of scale, materials and our desire to possess a subject. The promotion for her 2018 Sanderson Contemporary show talks of a delight in collecting and looking at lithic (stone) forms that would “eventually be coupled with picturing masculine beauty”. These preoccupations are also present in the 2019 works with two averted male heads and an ambiguous stone-like ‘mountain range’, titled Mantle 2019.
If Ellis’s subjects are not fully available to the viewer, what draws us in is the precise, almost chilly, sensuality of her surfaces. The back of the male craniums are covered in finely shaved hair contrasting with small rounded ears. These features, like the fine lines through the stone-like material in Mantle, speak of precise and loving observation. Works like the strangely steep stairs in Flotsam 11, 2019 and the possible ‘stone mountains’ in Mantle, mess with our desire to read a subject through its scale and materials. Ellis prefers to keep the material of Flotsam a mystery , so I wonder about foam, stone or even cheese, while Mantle, could equally be a small rock masquerading as majestic peaks (or even a small ceramic masquerade). Rose Randell tells me that Mantle could be hung horizontally or vertically, further complicating photography’s supposed truthful depictions of subjects. These complications give the works an inward feeling as if they might be ours to look at, or think about, but not necessarily to fully possess.
Kevin Capon’s five works, showing separately to the mind bending By Definition works, are eclectic, mostly close-in views, of subjects printed on a large scale. The gallery information says that his work “builds towards an enigmatic archive that describes human anxieties and the fading glory of modernity.”
It was a difficult to get a sense of that archive in five works, and I wasn’t sure that the strategy of isolating subjects in the frame and presenting them on a whopping scale always made the images linger in the mind. The work The Hierophant 2016 - meaning a person who interprets sacred mysteries or esoteric principles  and also features as a character in the tarot deck - consists of a close-in view of the back of an old book roughly taped to a dark surface. While there are suggestions of a refusal to read the contents, or even a mistreatment of the book’s knowledge, the bluntness of the actual image didn’t carry me far. A work like Ronnie’s Hand, Mokau, 1996, which features a close-in view of a hand with a missing top middle finger, a kiwi tattoo and a silver watch with condensation inside the glass, invited more open-ended looking at surface detail and thinking about the person attached to the hand.
Perhaps the most engaging Capon work was the still life Black sand, rocks, shells and driftwood arrangement, Mokau, 2017 where materials from Mokau are recombined against a soft grey studio backdrop, creating the illusion of a miniature island. Giving the subject room to breathe made it easier to enter the image and appreciate the poetry of what felt like a delicate re-creation of place.
Overall the two shows were an intelligent look at the possibilities of photography and I walked out into the material world of concrete, asphalt and steel a little lighter for it.
1 Artist reply to question through gallery
Mary Macpherson is a Wellington photographer, poet and Reviews Editor of the PhotoForum website.