Never judge a photo without reading the blurb! That is the lesson to be drawn from Paul Seawright’s current exhibition in Dublin’s Kerlin Gallery. Seawright’s exhibition is entitled “Volunteer” and takes up all the space of the Kerlin Gallery top floor. The plain, light-filled gallery space is perfectly matched by similarly plain images, all uniformly in landscape format and plainly framed in black frames.
The initial reaction to Seawright’s images is one of curiosity and confusion. Is this art? Is this aesthetically pleasing? What does this mean? Those thoughts went through this reviewer’s head upon examining the photos. Of the ten images, only one seemed aesthetically pleasing – the image entitled “Oil” (see it here), picturing three yellow posts on a parking lot, in front of a white-grey wall and with three large oil-spills on the tarmac. The composition of the image is beautifully balanced; the tones of the print soothingly neutral, apart from the yellow posts.
But what to make of the other images? The setting is the United States. Seawright photographed parking lots, empty warehouses in the background, the usual paraphernalia of industrial estates on the fringes of the images: portaloos, bins, fences, walls. There is little colour visible in the photographs – the places appear washed out, grey, bland. And bland was the word that came to my mind – where was the art in that???
Of course, Seawright is following in the footsteps of other “Master of the Mundane”. Long before him, Stephen Shore showed every-day scenes in his images that were among the first colour photographs to be considered “art”. And admittedly – there is beauty in the every-day-life. And some of Seawright’s images are very strong on composition, like this untitled picture of a warehouse (here). The photographer has a great eye for diverging diagional lines, balancing the delivery van on the left with the warehouse that is captured at an angle. The pole in the foreground almost jauntily leans at an angle and lends a bit of colour to the image. And amazingly, even the shadow of the telephone pole fits into the parallelogram of lines in the photograph.
Nonetheless – the images, while carefully composed and framed, did not resonate at first. The Eureka! moment came upon reading the exhibition notes. Seawright’s intention with this project was to photograph recruiting stations of the US Army. Hence the title “Volunteer”. And suddenly the photographs gain a new layer of meaning: The boring blandness suddenly becomes demonstrative starkness, the exchangeable views of defunct warehouses, cheap Dollar stores, fast food outlets a kind of industrial desert, a deliberate contrast to the fact that in these non-descript places the recruiters sign up young American men and women for the Army – to be deployed in Afghanistan. So what we see is not a documentation of American parking lots and industrial estates, but a social commentary on contemporary America. This is where the canonfodder is recruited, non-descript, plain, unknown people. To be sent to another country, most images of which are of non-descript, dusty, desert-y places.
So, don’t judge a book by its cover – or a photograph without reading the blurb!