Pitch perfect


Glenn Sloggett’s A White Trash (Lost) Love Story is a perplexing title for a series that presumably aims to explore, however obliquely or fictionally, the sociologically nebulous term of ‘white trash’ paired with the romantic aspirations of a ‘love story’. How to do this with a modest suite of fifteen large-scale colour photographs? For white trash, presumably, we have a flattened cardboard box on concrete (Mattress for a homeless man), banal examples of laneway graffiti (Cock and tit fucking), and a pathetic shop’s window display of hand-rendered signs advertising distinctly unappetising discounted pavlovas (Not quite right). Standing in for a love story we get images like Amputee op-shop bride, depicting a mannequin in second-hand bridal gown bereft of an arm in whose place is affixed a plastic red rose, sharing a symbolic symmetry with Diseased roses, easily the most visually seductive image in the series with its colour scheme of complimentary reds and greens asserting the sculptural form of a pathetic, dying rose bush against a backdrop of humdrum suburbia.

But this is not a story without its self-conscious telling. It’s not clear, for instance, why Plastic flowers, an awkward assemblage paired with broomsticks on a suburban pavement, presumably a merchandise display outside a two-dollar shop, is out of focus. In other examples Sloggett’s on-camera flash appears reflected in glass, but having no reasonable relation to the allegorical potential of the subject thus portrayed, it strikes one as a transparent technical decision to signal the ‘amateur’, to marry the banality of the photographic subject to the banality of photographic representation. If this doesn’t sound engaging, it’s not: the problem for the viewer is interest wanes. Contrasted with previous successful and much more visually engaging series by the artist, such as 2002’s Cheaper and deeper where Sloggett was able to enliven the quotidian surrealism of Australian suburbia with visual rigour and a colour palette that was ravenously edible, on this showing the visual ingredients are unappetising. There’s a visual language searching for a story, but it’s tongue-tied.

Oblique, still, tender: qualities of Conor O’Brien’s approach to picture-making which are in pitch-perfect tune with the aesthetic temperament of his subjects. Photographs 2003-2011, recently presented at the Australian Centre for Photography, is O’Brien’s first major survey show, offering a judicious selection and hang of photographs, each printed in various dimensions and set in white box frames, accompanied by a showcase featuring his modest yet highly accomplished artist’s books. Despite the considered framing, each photograph gives a sense of having been captured with sideways glances, with subjects—a stack of plastic chairs, the façade of a suburban home, a figure wrapped in a patchwork quilt—presented to the viewer in a contradictory state of quiet stillness and delicate transition. Landscapes of green hills, snow-capped mountains and placid bodies of water are diorama-like in their completeness as tiny worlds, whilst the most apparent aspect of O’Brien’s work as presented in this survey is that nowhere is the viewer’s gaze returned, much less challenged: human subjects are presented with eyes closed, with hands obscuring the face, or altogether turning their backs to camera. In Cobain, O’Brien presents a magazine cover of a commemorative issue of Rolling Stone following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, which acts as the singular instance of an eyes-open portrait, significantly a twice-removed simulacrum. Cobain’s oft-quoted dictum (itself reprised from the lyrics of Neil Young) that ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away,' intended as a provocative artistic incitement, is here ignored by O’Brien who shows up the falseness of this dichotomy. His photographs show that genuine wonder can exist beyond the fresh eyes of youth where for many there is just spectacle, boredom and cynicism.

Wisely, O’Brien lets the symbolic potential of each image do the heavy lifting rather than employing the often cloying interventions of more conceptually driven practices; his work acts as a beautiful, life-affirming coda to a lapsed idea of youth, walking a steady path from innocence to worldliness with neither irony nor nostalgia. Working within the special confines of the medium, which is to say both its formal qualities as a lens-based view of the world and the always latent prejudices and misconceptions of its reception by audiences, Photographs 2003-2011 is a difficult, admirable achievement. Like E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph in Howard’s End—a masterful novel of the shifting psychological dimensions of the inner and outer life, the seen and unseen—O’Brien seeks to, and succeeds in, stoking the always unfulfilled desire to ‘only connect.'

Conor O’Brien, Photographs 2003-2011, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, 3 December 2011 – 5 February 2012.

Glenn Sloggett, A White Trash (Lost) Love Story, Stills Gallery, Sydney, 1-25 February 2012.

Published in Art Monthly Australia, no. 251, July 2012, pp. 45-46.

© Pedro de Almeida 2012.