Photobooth nostalgia in Always be my Maybe

There are lots of things to like in Always be my Maybe: the kids running through the house who carefully take off their shoes first (and then put them back on when they get to the back door), Marcus Kim cultivating some Cantonese to get better service at the dim sum eatery, the scenes with Sasha Tran’s celebrity boyfriend Keanu Reeves being a caricature of himself. In this movie of love, food and reconnection (directed by Nahnatchka Khan and written by Ali Wong, Randall Park and Michael Golamco) there are other moments, but one that struck me was when Marcus looks at some old photobooth slide pictures of himself with Sasha.

Randall sitting his bed at night looking at a slide viewer

They grew up together, and the pictures are from a childhood Friday night out together.

View from looking into the viewer of young Marcus and Sasha.

The pictures evoke memories of a time when they were closer and set up the halting present-day awkwardness that follows.

What’s interesting about these photobooth pictures is that they’re so clearly nostalgic: Marcus fishes it out from a box of trinkets under his bed, the little slide viewer is old novelty, the young Marcus and Sasha are in their early teens dressed in denim jackets, the colours are a little faded.

The pictures come from Marcus and Sasha’s past, but they come from an American past as well. The migrant experience of their parents is around them; nevertheless the pictures are not pre-migration photographs from Korea or Vietnam, they’re pictures from America. And that’s refreshing. American nostalgia is mostly framed as white, and even when Asians are part of the historical frame they mostly remain othered (by their accents, their subordinate roles, being played by white actors). These photobooth pictures tell us that Marcus and Sasha’s history, and their present, are American.

A harvest from the exhibition class

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Every year the director of Adelaide’s Centre for Creative Photography, Gavin Blake, runs an exhibition course for students who’ve got solid bodies of work. He guides them through the process of organising, promoting, and setting up an exhibition, as well as pushing them to refine the work they’ve chosen to show. It’s kind of a culmination of studies for these students. This year’s show is called Harvest, and it’s quite a bounty of pictures, a show that is a mix of work and styles that reflects the students’ diversity of projects and approaches.

Note: I teach at the CCP and have had some of these artists in my classes.

Stephen Hunt‘s still lifes are rich and lush and generous with its bouquets that spill out of their vases and onto the table. He calls his series ‘A pastiche of still life’ and makes it as a reference to rococo and impressionist painters like Manet and Bosschaert. The elaborate frames do that too. Some are individual flower studies, some more complex bunches of flowers. I’m not sure what a florist would make of these arrangements but these are gorgeous pictures here, softly lit, colourful but not overpowering, the ones at the back receding into the darkness. The odd stray flower that’s fallen away from the bunch is a bit of disarray; something rushed, something not perfect. Then I discover that Hunt served in a team who went over to manage the bodies after the 2004 tsunami. The pictures are an acknowledgment of, but a moving past, what must have been something horrible.

A lush bunch of flowers on a dark table with a dark background.
Stephen Hunt, ‘Still life’.

Bec Joannu’s fantasy tableaus are a self-contained fantasy world of kids, paper boats, and night skies of sleep and dreams. It’s a sheeny Where the Wild Things Are without the danger and with an Australian flavour. In one image they’re all in a circle with rabbits and magpies. In another the kids, with fur hats, float in a lake that they share with pelicans. The darkness is around them but they aren’t huddling from it; they’re pointing and looking outward, telescope aimed beyond the frame towards some enthralling discovery. In another image they’re round a campfire, in another in a hot-air balloon, in all of them a world of adventure, and of being unafraid of the night.

Two kids in a paper boat on a lake at nighttime look towards the shore. There are rabbits and pelicans around them.
Bec Joannou, ‘Navigators’

There are more flowers with Pamela Ann Brangwen-Jones, who’s made photograms with black-and-white and colour paper, and scanograms, images constructed from laying flowers on a scanner. There are a couple of images where the elements seem disconnected and the image unresolved, but then there are some others that are captivating, comprising feathers and other textures. The scanner lights things in a soft and even way. There aren’t really any hard shadows, and this, with the diffused feather strands, make an inviting bed of soft textures for our eyes to fall into, mostly whites and greys with some hints of colour here and there. We might see stray feathers as we wander around, but Brangwen-Jones picks them up and incorporates them into her pictures, paying attention to the fragments we’d otherwise ignore.

Feathers layed out against a black background. They are mostly white, with some pink and green ones.
Pamela Ann Brangwen-Jones, ‘Le Piume I’

Renāte Smitham’s film photos are set up as they they are documents of an artist (or at least an enquirer) looking at flowers, playing the piano, puzzling together a wall of pictures. I mention that they are shot in film because that’s part of her aesthetic; with some pieces she prints a strip of negatives, frame numbers and all. One has her at the piano; she tells the viewer that she is relearning to play ‘Für Elise’ as a way of remembering her father and grandfather. From left to right, each frame getting lighter and lighter until she almost disappears as the last frame is overexposed. Getting lost in the music, or in the effort of practice? It’s another tribute too, to Duane Michals and his multiple frames and in-camera special effects. Her other pieces—some multiple negative frames, others multiple mirrors or montages—also place her as inheritor of artistic and family tradition.

Negative strip of five frames progressively getting overexposed, that show someone at piano.
Renāte Smitham, ‘Playing “Für Elise”‘

Ida Sophia also places herself as an inheritor of tradition with a series of self-portraits that refer to artists like Marina Abramovic, Florence Henri, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman. Her pictures start out as small Instax instant prints, and as large prints they maintain a subdued colour palette carry an unmissable . By using self-portraits she claims her part in a lineage that comprises artists who are makers of personality as much as they are of artworks: Marina Abramovic, for example, or Man Ray. Sophia’s colour tribute to Florence Henri is a recreation of Henri’s ‘Autoportrait’, where Henri sits in front of a mirror with two silver balls rolled up against it. Instead of the ambiguous balls, Sophia has some glasses or candle holders, it’s unclear which. In any case, the pair of objects is less a literal copy and more an homage or a toast to the woman in the original black-and-white mirror, from the woman in the new colour mirror. It look almost like a seance, a call to the spirits for guidance, but Sophia’s active participation in making these images make it clear that she’s creating her own oeuvre, spirit, persona and presence.

A mirror reflects an image of a woman at a table.
Ida Sophia, ‘Homage to Florence Henri’

Victor Marillanca’s street photographs are shot with Holga plastic cameras, using medium-format film. The contrasty prints seem almost made from the bitumen streets that look at so closely. What Marillanca does is turn the pictures upside down, so that you’re looking at reflections in water puddles as if they are fractures in the sky. It’s a simple twist on reality (and a literal twist on the the picture), but isn’t that how the cracks in the universe that we tell stories about usually appear—as rifts almost unnoticed in some alley? In some of them there’s a solitary figure in silhouette, in the distance. Maybe it’s a traveller about to step into a portal to elsewhere. Maybe it’s a visitor who’s slipped into our timeline. Are they here to watch? Or warn? Take it how you will, but Adelaide’s getting more rainy these days, and more of these portals are opening up. Watch where you step, and know that we are not alone.

Upside down photo of a wet street. There is a small sillhouetee of a someone at the bottom.
Victor Marillanca, ‘Return trip’

The prints in an exhibition are objects to go look at and be in the room with, obviously, but John Hopkinson’s prints, of objects, are also the most object-like of the show. They’re made up of a couple of transparent sheets, mylar maybe, where one sheet is fairly straight rendering of the object (tin can, grater), that is backlit with a light panel. The second sheet is a glitchy copy, and together they look like they are floating and glowing and three-dimensional. They’re pictures of the most mundane things, but theyr’e vibrant and almost alive, and made me want to keep looking.

A metal vase that looks like it's floating above a white surface.
John Hopkinson, ‘Untitled #1’

The image above is intriguing in the way the vase looks like it’s floating, but it’s only a hint of the luminous object on the wall. The piece isn’t just asking you to consider the ambiguity of something, it is an ambiguous thing in itself. My kitchen benchtop isn’t as pristine as this background, but I’ll be taking an extra moment to look at my cheese grated when I make my dinner tonight.

The good thing about this show and this class is that it brings together a disparate group of people and pushes them to develop an idea or existing work into a stronger series. There’s no interpretation of a single theme, which can sometimes feel forced, but each participant’s been encouraged to find their own way and give us a look into what catches their eye. And by extension, they ask us to consider what catches ours.

Harvest was at Studio Bowden from 12 April to 3 May 2019, and is at The Light Gallery at the Centre for Creative Photography from 13 May to 21 June 2019. There will be an artists’ talk there on Tuesday 28 May 2019 at 6pm.

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

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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

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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?