Publication: The Sunday Herald
Keith Coventry & Four Photographers
Is photography - and the photographer - subject to a different set of moral conditions than, say, the painter? Some might argue that this is indeed the case, given photography’s privileged relationship to reality. It’s a question which occurs when considering the work of Keith Coventry who uses photography as part of the process of making art. In 1997 Coventry achieved a measure of fame, but little notoriety, when his work was chosen for inclusion in the controversial ‘Sensation’ exhibition at the Royal Academy. His painting ‘White Abstract (Sir Norman Reid Explaining Modern Art to the Queen, 1979)’ was arguably the least contentious piece in the show.
Here, however, Coventry appears, at least on the surface, to be courting some kind of reaction in a suite of photographically derived black and white screen prints entitled ‘Crack, Crack Girls, Crack Den, Crack Bottles – 2001’. Although Coventry pleads political and social neutrality for these images, in reality this could never be the case, particularly when we learn that while the prostitutes photographed here acceded to their portrayal the price for doing so was a quantity of crack cocaine paid for by the artist.
In themselves the images are not unusual; they are, rather, in the context of the early 21st century, banal and ordinary in a way in which the brothel images of Toulouse Lautrec or Degas could never be, given the radically different social and political milieu in which they were created. Coventry’s works differ because of the way in which he and his media-savvy generation have learned to manipulate public and media to their own ends. It’s a clever ploy and one which will repeatedly succeed.
If this sounds like an attribution of overmuch cynicism to the artist, then it should not detract from his undoubted skills and serious concerns, not least his reference to art historical process seen in ‘Ontological Picture’ which hints at the history of Abstraction or his series of etchings depicting crack pipes which clearly allude to the exquisite still-life studies of Morandi. Elsewhere, his Supermodel series (based on the fact that geometrical rules govern the proportions of the human face and body) is disappointing and pedestrian. This notion was, until recently, a commonplace in art school curricula and as such is a facile premise on which to base an artwork.
On safer ground, at least aesthetically, is the work of photographers David Williams, Garry Fabian Miller, Susan Derges and Patricia Macdonald. All four share an interest in landscape and the natural world and seek to reveal the inherent poetry in what may initially appear as the mundane. Williams, in his series ‘Stillness and Occurrence,’ takes the somewhat unpromising subject matter of Portobello beach; in truth, the tacky and tawdry beachfront is of no concern to the photographer. Instead he focuses on bathing figures and ships far off-shore and depicts these as other-worldly, abstracted presences in compositions of great tonal and emotional delicacy.
Derges employs a more rational method to her compositions and her depictions of a bluebell reveal - with a blend of scientific observation and artistic sensibility - the flower in various stages of development. Miller, like Williams, is fascinated by water and here in a series of works from the mid 1970s he pursues this theme, although the images appear less successful than his later work. Macdonald has for some time enjoyed great success with her aerial photographs made in collaboration with her pilot husband. In her observation of landscape Macdonald’s eye is keen, but it is her self-awareness in a number of self-portraits (depictions of shadows of her body and the plane) where she achieves most success.