Great Balls of Fire
By Mark Amery
Where once people got their fix of awe and wonder from a majestic landscape painting, today they are more likely to get it near the end of a blockbuster movie - from a huge explosion as their hero narrowly escapes a predicament.
These are for viewers carefully staged forms of release, offering us a respite from our day-to-day tribulations. Sublime moments where things are far bigger than ourselves, and beyond our control.
Photographer Geoffrey H Short’s powerful, potent photographs of large stage-managed explosions at Suite Gallery on Oriental Parade connect directly to our love of the release a big bang offers. Frozen by the camera shutter and removed from any narrative, his burning blooms in the sky (quite literally great balls of fire) lead us to think about an explosion’s symbolism. Sex, death and cosmic creation, just for starters.
They also make us think about photography in relation to painting. Technically impressive in their detail capture of these temporary events, the beautiful abstract marks made by explosives can seem as impressionistic as a Turner stormy sky, or expressive as a white spray of Pollock strokes.
Short’s technical virtuosity and subject matter is likely inspired by years working as a commercial stills photographer in film and television. Film special effects technicians were hired to create these explosions out on Auckland’s west coast black sand beaches.
Short initially studied at Elam School of Fine Arts in the 1980s, returning there a few years ago to graduate with a degree with first class honours and a Senior Prize in Fine Arts, based on this body of work. The work has also been selected for an internationally touring survey exhibition of emerging photographers, produced by Switzerland’s Musée d l’Elyée. Short’s work features prominently upfront in the accompanying book. In other words, this is a rather special suite of works.
There’s a strong conversation going on here between the real and artificial, and the trickiness of our perceptions of both. Just as in a John Gully painting of Mitre Peak everything is carefully arranged. In this exhibition’s central image a Cumulus-like cloud of multiple explosions is shot so it looks like its resting on the top of a greenish black bed. Not only is it a carefully arranged composition, the black sand hill resembles nothing more real than a crumpled piece of satin sheet, photoshopped-in. This could be a carefully doctored image from the studio of a commercial photographer, as adept at working in miniature on tables with props as capturing film action on location on a big-sky scale.
In one of my favourite images a green triangle in one corner acts as a strong counterpoint to an explosion. Yet the land is quite clearly a section of grassy farmland hill, complicating the illusion and adding a touch of the surreal.
The explosion here has a propulsive sense of lift-off, helped by wispy trails of black smoke beneath. I can’t help but be reminded of art history’s ascending angels and Christ figures. In particular, with the farmland and clouds, I’m reminded of the religious painting of Colin McCahon.
Likewise with Short’s close-up stills of explosions, the majesty of the cosmic dust reminds me of Max Gimblett and Gretchen Albrecht paintings. Any number of creation stories can be attached to these photographs.
Our contemporary relationship to landscape and the sublime through art is also considered in a thoughtfully put together group photography show at Bartley and Company.
Documentary and constructed sublime representations of landscape, and the uneasy relationship between the land and our footprint on it, are key to Anne Noble’s ongoing series about Antarctica. The strongest, and key image here captures a scene from a museum display in Dundee. A sculpted prop resembling a snowy-ridged vent - which holds steaming light in its mouth like some golden chalice of promise - stands before a painted Antarctic mountain backdrop. Like Short’s work it’s a nice conflation in photography of sculpture and painting, full of symbolic potential, and pleasing in its play with textures.
This and Short’s work speak interestingly with the collage of Kate Woods, where folded origami like abstract shapes float in front of biscuit tin cover-like found images of mountains and lakes.
Our mediated relationship with landscape through painting, sculpture and photography is unpacked physically in these images. I particularly like where edits of the scenes are repeated, stretched and pulled within the geometric shells, as if the whole scene as an object is conceptually being unpicked. The work is as much about the material. Landscapes are either pixellated, or the texture of a painting’s canvas pronounced, with a deliberately awkward tension between second and third dimensions. Woods’ geometric streamers are like uncrumpled balls of paper - clouds of ideas floating in front of landscapes. I only wish the shapes in the foreground were sharper.
Nina van der Voorn’s work particularly suffers due to a lack of sharpness technically, and the framing behind glass doesn’t assist. Yet there’s a promising surreal tension here between the real and photoshopped in verdant patches of grass and glistening ponds in dark woodland. They’re not quite yet the magical launch pads for the imagination they promise to be.
Likewise Amelia Hitchcock’s work is well selected – playing off historical landscape photography. Yet limited to only a couple of works, they come off looking fairly unremarkable, promising more by virtue of their context in this show than they can deliver.
Towards Another (Big Bang) Theory, Geoffrey H. Short, Suite Gallery, until 17 July
Land Ashore, Bartley and Company, until 16 July