7 - 28 May 2011
Opening Saturday 7 May at 14:00
Preview by appointment
Exhibition catalogue available
Walkabout Saturday 14 May at 12:00
Terry Kurgan and Ruth Rosengarten both engage in the photographic discourse generated in the space created between the publication of Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Fred Ritchin’s After Photography (2009). Kurgan and Rosengarten fill that creative space by, what seems to be their translation of photographs in their respective drawings on exhibition at GALLERY AOP.
Says Kurgan: 'Underpinning much of my work is a preoccupation with family photographs, particularly the way in which they mediate our experience of ourselves. I am interested in the complex negotiation that occurs in the making of a photographic image: there is in each of my projects, whether public or private, an attempt to reach under the opaque, two-dimensional surface'. Rosengarten articulates a similar point: 'Recently, I’ve been scanning old family photographs – sometimes creased and scuffed, often ambered by time and light – in an attempt to constitute a digital archive. I’ve thought about such photographs as time capsules: amulets against oblivion and loss, their particular arrest holding a vanished moment. As much as I myself am a profligate digital snapper of everyday life, I am (perhaps nostalgically) intrigued by the time when a single photograph staunchly or tenderly memorialised an event'.
Sontag argues that photographs have the power to shock, idealize or seduce, and that they can be used as evidence against us, or identify us. 'For the last ten years, every time I start preparing for an exhibition', says Kurgan, 'I haul out a precious portfolio of about thirty black and white photographs, produced by a studio photographer named Menashe Golashevsky. He came out to South Africa from Lithuania in 1928 on the same ship as my grandfather, and worked out of a shop front in Salt River, Cape Town. The images are very poignant, combining layer upon layer of personal, cultural and social history. I began with these photographs but quickly decided that a different sort of project lies in waiting in this material'. In the same vein, Rosengarten relates: 'It is a commonplace that our individual recollections are both sustained and constructed by family photographs. The older photos, those that precede our personal historical time, join one another to constitute small clusters of collective memory (and collective amnesia); the more recent ones in which we ourselves appear wanly from another time, serve as mnemonics: these stills become prompts and then, more securely, ‘memories’.'
What is, however, striking about both these two artists’ use of photographs as impetus for their work, is the way in which they ‘translate’ them into drawings. Their translation process - essentially expressing the sense of one visual text to another form of representation - involves transforming images into, what Ritchin calls '[metaphorical] hypertexts', resulting in what Marshall McLuhan refers to as 'the meeting of media' (or, in Kurgan and Rosengarten’s case, analogue photographs and pencil and charcoal drawings). In this regard, Kurgan describes her practice as follows: 'I shot a small series of photographs and turned back to making drawings for Still, life. The first part of the process is the preparation of the paper, which I prime with rabbit skin glue. I love how this surface resists my drawing materials: they slide off the page, leaving faint traces, enabling me to draw and remove repeatedly, building the drawing in many thin layers, and leaving the paper with a memory of an image built cumulatively. There’s also a search for the image through repetition: drawing the same image over and over again, moving it around, sometimes allowing it to slip out of the frame'. Rosengarten’s method is slightly different: 'I began to draw from these photographs in a blind bid to understand something about their poise and formality, their distilled tenderness. They dated from different periods, but such differences were flattened and negated by my use of a single drawing implement: the pencil. My first renderings were quick, faint and linear, as if I were abashed to be drawing so directly from a photographic source. As I worked, I became more interested in the suffused light and pools of shadow through which the images gained visibility'.
Each artist’s translation, however, is unique. Kurgan translates the ‘furtiveness’ evident in the images of another series of photographs - her Hotel Yeoville project of 2010 - into her new series of drawings. 'I was editing several hundreds of photo-booth photographs produced by participants in 'Hotel Yeoville', a public realm project I had run out of the Yeoville Library through 2010. Each person shot a series of self-portraits, and, looking at them now en masse, I love how fugitive many of these images seem'. Rosengarten translates the backs of old photographs into new narratives (by exposing various kinds of writing, annotation and other markings) and by creating new ways of representing images: 'The reverse side of each photograph tells its own story. Where now, we pay scant attention to the reproducible materiality of digital prints, these old photographs are intriguing as physical objects. Their mottled surfaces are exquisite, painterly abstractions in shades of malt; the torn, map-shaped black blotches remnants and reminders of an earlier existence in an album. And the words, in scripts we no longer use; names, dates, dedications…'
In the end the process of translation becomes a metaphoric transformation in their work. In Terry’s case, she maintains that as she draws she begins to Ieave the photographic reference behind, '…getting involved with the materials and marks. The formal profile pose evokes a sense of traditional still life painting and I add flowers with their obvious reference to time passing linking them to that powerful human impulse to hold onto the present'. Ruth puts the photographic image on standby, while '…concentrating on the surface rather than trying to dig out any meaning that might be buried within the photograph, I have found myself thinking repeatedly that a photo reveals nothing of the temporal substance it ostensibly captures. Offering itself as intractable surface, it tells us little of the mysteries of people’s passage through time and how it is that, now old or buried, the child gazes back at us from sepia in all innocence. I want to explore again what happens when that most direct of all forms of graphic capture – pencil on paper – meets the unyielding strangeness of the photograph'.
Terry Kurgan lives in Johannesburg, and works across a diverse range of media. She holds a BAFA degree from the California College of Art, San Francisco and an MFA from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town. She has been awarded many prizes and grants, and exhibited and published broadly in South Africa, and internationally. Currently, her work is included on Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography at the V & A Museum, London (April – July 2011), and she is working on the book publication of her digital, interactive Hotel Yeoville project being published by Fourthwall Books later this year.