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Atruim Galery, London
16 June - 18 July 2008
Reviewed by: Anna Hales »
The newly refurbished Atrium space of LSE launched the first exhibition in a yearlong schedule that aims to explore the relationship between art and the social sciences. Southpaw, the inaugural show in the imaginatively renamed Atrium Gallery, has set the precedent for an inspiring calendar of events.
This beautifully luminous and airy space (although slightly cluttered with vitrines containing relics unrelated to the exhibiting artists) provides the ideal platform to exhibit this selection of photographic portraits. Stretching across one wall, these two distinctive sets of portraits have been just as distinctively divided: On the right are Potter’s large-scale portraits of non-breed cats; on the left are Tye’s portraits of male boxers. Although starkly contrasting, Potter and Tye’s photographs present an immediate unspoken accord.
Potter’s images resemble mug shots; one almost expects to see an identifying letter board at the base of each portrait, familiar with traditional mug shot photography. It is thus amusing to learn that the pieces have been titled in a similarly documentary and clinical style: Portrait 6, Portrait 13, Portrait 3.It is this very detachment that makes Potter’s work so accosting. These animals are not show cats, nor are they even slightly groomed, one even presents a ragged ear. There is a sense of functionality about these passport-style images with their plain white, non-distracting backgrounds, and yet there is also an air of confrontation. Whereas one might ordinarily apply personality traits to such animals, this style of photography makes it increasingly difficult to do so. These images deny any preconceived notions of animal photography. The documentary style of the images presents the cats in an objectified way; reminiscent of the way that objects are labelled in museums for consideration, dissection and comprehension. The photographs do not seem intrusive, just frank and forthright: The cats stare out into the gallery with indifference. What is particularly noteworthy of these photographs is that the cats are displayed at our eye level. Our gaze meets that of the cat, which has a truly discomforting effect. We are left not knowing how to react; considering what is exchanged between the gaze of human and animal. The space between the viewer and the artwork occupied by this gaze becomes an entity in itself.
Whereas Potter’s cats appear to stare back at us, Tye’s boxers stare beyond us. Rather than being involved in a confrontational gaze, the viewer now becomes voyeur. Tye created temporary studio set-ups in a selection of boxing clubs, where he invited athletes to pose directly after pro fights. One’s usual preconceptions about boxing might include ideas of machismo, power, and spectacle, but here, these notions are shelled away. We are faced with incredibly intimate and vulnerable portraits that capture a moment of complete exhaustion. It feels as though we are witness to the moment before collapse; to a wholly private experience. Some of the boxers appear introverted; others come across as empty shells. A climax has been reached, and now all that remains is a slow journey downwards. It is interesting to note that these boxers fall into the light welterweight – perhaps if one was faced with heavyweight fighters this sense vulnerability would be lost in their unforgiving bulk. Tye’s work presents an almost lifeless gaze which simultaneously seems to possess the very essence of being alive. One must wonder how the medium of photography has affected these images: photography has the capability of injecting contemplativeness through its motionlessness, and by here freezing the moment between adrenaline and collapse there appears to be a sense of resignation, dignity and grief.
Both of these sets of portraits offer an honest approach to their subject. In the same way that Potter denies traditional animal portraiture, so too does Tye deny traditional boxing portraiture. Rather than portraying a svelte, well groomed pedigree cat, we are presented with the non-breed mug-shot. And rather than portraying an energetic ‘puffed up’ boxer, we see the empty shell of a human being. Tye’s approach adds compassion to his subject, whereas Potter seems to remove compassion. What is usually considered aggressive is now vulnerable, and what is usually considered vulnerable now appears aggressive. Photography here allows one to both take possession of the gaze and to indulge in the gaze. What is interesting it how these two approaches differ incredibly; one is empowering, and the other strips of power.
Anna Hales is a writer based in London. MA Aesthetics and Art Theory.
LSE Old Building Houghton Street London WC2A 2AE
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