PhD series – Pictures of the Body

Project Description

For my PhD exhibition in 2011 26 paintings from the series Pictures of the Body were shown spaced, in a single line at eye height around a slightly irregularly shaped gallery. They were also exhibited as a large grid with no gap between them using 45 paintings at Aratoi the public gallery in Masterton.

These images taken from news media accounts of conflict between protestors and police from all over the world. I was impressed with the universality, in all of these locations, of the armour worn by the agents of the state and the relatively naked vulnerability of the protestors even though violence was initiated by both sides.

The aim of my PhD research was to examine the ways in which art can expose the viewer to experiences that contribute to the viewers understanding of themselves and their world. I started from the premise that painting is a mode of communication but that many paintings merely try to impose the artist’s fixed view. Unfortunately this does not assist the viewer in their independent understanding and contributes to the tendency that encourages ways of looking to become commodified as fashion.

The aim of my research was to present work that represented media images in the fictional mode of painting as neutrally as possible. That is, without the conspicuous presence of the ‘artistic virtuosity’ that codes art as a special priviledged voice. My painting method was designed to try to provide imagery that could activate the viewers own imagination, experience and empathy without imposing the ‘artist’s view’. Since experience is only ever gained through the ‘work’ of understanding I ask the viewer to first construct the scene from a minimum of visual information. The work of imagination is related to the interpretation of the visual image but is also framed by the photographic reference to documentary that the images still preserve. The images try to retain both the fiction of the painting and the documentary everyday reality of the news photograph.

News photos provide an inexhaustible source of interesting images for me. The simplification and removal of information – I call it blurring – not only gives space for the viewer to engage with the work and narrative, it also gives space to me as the maker to use the huge repertoire of abstraction within figurative painting.

This group of paintings focuses on the usually violent interaction between police and demonstrators or that between one faction or another. I find this subject area highly compelling not only for the universality of the condition but also for the profusion of images and the intensity of their description of the human body. Opposition and confrontation is an increasingly common feature of national and international political interaction. It is the result of polarisation and fundamentalism. The antidote to this totalising thinking comes through the exercise of imagination and empathy. Through the contemplative process of deciphering these images and the narrative they present, the viewer is invited to engage empathy and in doing so invokes commonalities between contestants rather than their distinctions and differences as a tool for resolution.

These paintings were not captioned or titled in order to provoke whatever memory the viewer might have of these highly publicised events. All of the paintings are 75 cm square, oil on canvas.

Project Details

Closed Christmas Day
and Boxing Day!

(Okay)