Settled areas: Sue Michael and Mark Thomson

I’ve known Sue Michael for maybe 20 years, and seen her work evolve from handmade pinhole camera prints to vivid big canvases. Until 17 March, she’s sharing West Gallery Thebarton with Mark Thomson in a joint show called Settled areas. One of Sue’s earlier pieces I remember was a black and white print of some plants in her garden. It was a gently wonky picture, with an unevenness that was part of its charm, and she called it something whimsical like ‘struggle’ or ‘optimism’. Her attention in this show is still on the importance of home, of location, of place, but her canvases are bigger and her territory much wider.

Painting of a kitchen interior with cream walls, blue picture, pink cupboard doors.
Sue Michael, Pinky kitchen

The paintings and sketches here are of South Australia’s mid-north, traversing towns like Eudunda, Maree, Lochiel. There are plenty of dusty front yards and cheery blue cloudless skies, but also lots of main streets, kitchens, tennis courts and ovals. The wonkiness I remember from her early work is still there, and now it’s suffused with colour and the liveliness of hand-drawn lines. There’s a feeling of comfort and familiarity in these spaces, with elements like an old lounge chair out in the yard by the embers of a bonfire, or spectacles on a kitchen bench by some upside-down glasses that are drying on a tea-towel. Only a few of the pictures have people in them, but their presence is embedded in the pictures.

A note in one of her sketchbooks talks about eschewing rigorous perspective in favour of being poetic. That lovely wonkiness again. And it makes these spaces both dreamy and familiar, humming with life.

Mark Thomson’s photographs are poetic too, but without the same sense of comfort. The colours are less saturated, the subject matter with more hard edges: an abandoned house that’s distorted and looking like the wind is about to push it over, the dark hulk of a car on a trailer. His pictures are of towns beyond the Goyder line, a 19th-century demarcation in South Australia north of which regular rainfall couldn’t be expected. People settled there anyway, and for a while the towns flourished. Then Goyder’s predictions took hold, and communities began to wither.

Photograph of a black car with the boot open, in a field of brown grass
Mark Thomson, Corolla

There’s certainly a harder view here, a ‘glimpse’, as Mark Thomson writes in his statement, ‘into a climate-changed future’. But there’s still community—a corner deli whose evening glow is the gathering point for a trio of teens—and poetry—an abandoned car that looks like it’s bobbing in a sea of brown grass. There’s sky in a lot of these pictures, and mostly they’re dark or clouded over, like a shadowy vignette round the edge of the print, pushing the gaze towards the ground, the paddock, the street.

I’m not suggesting that the two different views of the mid-North are determined by their form—the soft and colourful paintings versus the harder photographs with straighter lines. But they do offer us alternative views of the same location. These are both strong accounts and solid bodies of work on their own, but together they remind us not to foreclose the possibility of other nuances and facets and narratives.

Settled areas, Sue Michael and Mark Thomson, West Gallery Thebarton, Adelaide, 14 February to 17 March 2019

Richard Prince’s New Portraits


Richard Prince's claim from a 2011 lawsuit about him appropriating the work of Patrick Cariou that his aim is simply to "make great art that makes people feel good" is starting to feel a bit disingenous. It's difficult to look at his New Portraits series purely as an instance of appropriation as art. Downloading and making large prints of other people's instagram pictures changes the context of the images; printing them to include his own comments is a fitting way for Prince to leave his own mark on them.

Appropriation and remixing is part of the contemporary landscape and it opens up some fascinating and cogent works. But the other factor here is the presence and power of Richard Prince.

What's interesting about this work just gets clouded by the controversy of ownership though, and about Prince selling the work for $90,000 apiece. It would be so easy to head it off by collaborating more explicitly. Then everybody could concentrate on seeing these instagram images brought together large in the gallery context and we could discuss the art as art.

The Richard Prince of 2015 is no longer the lesser-known Richard Prince of Malboro fame. The democratic way that anonymous users appropriate and reuse images all over the web is not the same thing as the hegemonic assertion of power that this exhibition is. It's arguable that "images — even digital ones — are materials, and artists use materials to do what they do", as Jerry Saltz says in a review of the New Portraits show. But Prince's dominance gives him a way to exploit those materials in a way beyond what most artists are able to. It's a fitting response that the Suicide Girls, source of one of the appropriated images, are now offering versions of the Prince work for a fraction of the Prince price.

Nikki S. Lee pretends to be Nikki S. Lee



I was talking about self-portraiture with a class last week, and we had a look at Nikki S. Lee’s Projects series, where among other thigns she acts out being much older, or much younger, or Latina. There are photographs of her hanging with and looking a like a crowd of punk rockers or with some Japanese school girls. We’re all performing our identities to some extent, and what Lee does is put herself as a kind of control or emissary into this variety of situations as a way to emphasise the constructedness of identity.

(Video from Vice, The Creators Project)

Another series is Parts, where she gets pictures of herself with fictional boyfriends and husbands, and then cuts out the part of the photo with the man. It’s a way of asking how much relationships define the person—in some she looks disconnected, in others, it’s just an ordinary snapshot with nothing immediately apparent that’s lacking.

Lee’s Projects and Parts, coming as they in the early 2000s, predated the ubiquitious tide of the selfie, but they fit into the same discourse around performing and artifice and representations of minority identities that circulates around selfie-making.

As the clip above shows, even when she’s making a documentary about herself, she’s pretending. But aren’t we all, most of the time?

Paying for good video


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I wish I could watch YouTube videos without getting annoyed. I click the pop-up ads away and try to get back to watching, but I’m left slightly agitated and anxious about when the next ones might appear. I wish I could subscribe, in the way I first understood that word, by paying a regular amount of money to receive my content with no fuss. Not that that was a perfect system either: aside from being charged ‘outside the US’ postage, the magazines would regularly arrive dinged or bent or somehow marked by their passage through the post.

The filmmaker Astra Taylor (on the most excellent Theory of Everything podcast) laments the dominance of advertising as a source of revenue for artists making work for the web. The fact that it’s the default mode rather than one strategy among other is what is troubling. Taylor doesn’t sound optimistic about a viable alternative, at least in this podcast.

Schemes like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and Pozible they can be really effective for artists who have a following and who offer specific projects that need a single burst of funding. The ONDU wooden pinhole camera is a good example. It needed startup funds to establish the factory, and provided a well-crafted product that fit a photographic niche. It’s a lovely object, and the ONDU store is now a going concern. Just recently the cinematographer Chris Doyle successfully funded a documentary project dealing with the stories and lives around the Occupy Hong Kong demonstrations. It’s a smaller-scale experimental project with a lot of appeal for Doyle and documentary watchers (like me), but maybe not something easily fundable via regular channels.

A good Kickstarter needs to be a strong project or product obviously, but also carefully designed with specific and appropriately-priced rewards. But not all projects lend themselves to this form of funding. The film editor Tony Zhou’s video analysis series Every Frame a Painting is an engaging series of essays on cinematic style. If you haven’t seen any of his work you should have a look his examination of framing in Drive. It’ll make you look at movies differently, and if you’re a filmmaker or photographer it might make you think about your own process too. He’s a professional editor and he already puts his videos on YouTube and Vimeo. What he needs is time off from his regular work to devote to the ongoing series. He does this with Patreon. The idea here is that each contributor makes an ongoing pledge, and funds get deducted every month, or in Zhou’s case, after every video.

Zhou asks for a minimum of $1, and for this the contributer gets annotations for the videos. What Zhou is able to do is offer the videos generally without ads. The more funding he gets, the more frequently he’ll be able to make them. So there is a slight benefit for contributors, and a definite benefit for all. But rewards aside, it’s a statement against the hegemony of advertising and a way to affirm the value of these engaging and articulate video essays.

The brief disappearance of MPDrolet


A few weeks ago Mark Peter Drolet’s tumblr disappeared. MPD puts up a lot of photography from the web and provides a lot of material for serious photo discussion and sharing on tumblr. MPD was taken down for violating tumblr’s three strikes DCMA notice policy. It was quickly restored, and with that came the revelation of identity theft as part of the story.

Photographer Wayne Bremser as far as I know first blogged about it on 9 January, followed by Brian Formhals on Photographs on the Brain. Blake Andrews articulates really nicely the value that Drolet has in online discoveries of new photo work and prompting discussion and energy around all that online: “MPD was the friend with the crazy record collection who turned you on to good stuff every visit.” Andrews post links to some other interesting writing on the issue, and in 2012 did a Q & A with him, which is where I first heard of MPD. This is one tumblr I like to go visit directly in its own page rather than have it be part of the stream of posts in my dashboard. The sequencing of the posts creates a carefully considered and graphically engaging flow of images. (Wayne Bremser does this quite nicely too.)

All these writers are serious photo makers and commentators, ie not a bunch of photo anarchists seeking to set fire to the idea of intellectual property. Formhals runs the LVP photo podcast and has just edited and published Photographers’ Sketchbooks. It had looked at first like enough angry photographers had tapped Drolet with copyright notices for Tumblr to close his blog. Then it turned out that one of the photographers in question was the victim of identity fraud and someone else was posting takedown notices in his name (someone who’d been systematically trying to undermine the work of this photographer across the internet). Eventually order was restored. Drolet himself wrote on the issue and Blake Andrews did a follow-up post.

The first issue here is one of digital identity theft that the photographer Massimiliano Rossetto suffered, having an effect not just on him. This is not quite the same as having your passwords compromised, but it is a reminder about the circumspection we should treat all claims to identity with.

The other issue of intellectual property gets a good workout in the facebook discussions on Bryan Formhals‘ and Flak Photo‘s pages that Blake Andrews refers to. Drolet is not someone who posted work and claimed it as his, nor did he just reblog random pretty unattributed stuff on tumblr. Is his project fair use or copyright infringement? The murkiness of where exactly these two principles meet was apparent in these discussions during the few days of MPD’s disappearance.

The kind of picture-editing that Drolet does is valuable in a culture soaked in images. But the ambiguities of copyright and the competing interests of artists, corporations and viewers mean that the foundation of a photo blog that many consider to be essential reading is pretty fragile.