Paul Seawright & Victor Sloan

Paul Seawright & Victor Sloan
Art & Design Academy, Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU)
Until 18th June 2011

The Academy Gallery at John Moores University is showing two exhibitions as part of the Look 11 Festival. The Festival theme a ‘call to action’ invites us to consider the political landscape. And what landscape is more political than Northern Ireland, the subject of these two shows?

Stephen Snoddy, Festival Director, has attempted to present the work of photographers in Look 11 in pairs to create dialogues between the works. At the Academy Gallery this pairing is centred upon Paul Seawright and Victor Sloan whose works occupy the main gallery space (Jill Jennings’ work is displayed separately as a slide show). Thirteen photographs by each photographer are shown side by side. Seawright’s photographs are all from a 2009 series ‘Conflicting Accounts’, while Sloan’s images are from numerous series made between 1985 to 1994.

Victor Sloan has used a combination of techniques in his work. A few of the pictures on show are ‘straight photographs’ but most of the images have been altered by simple physical processes. Using bleaches, dyes, pigment, and scratching into the image or the negative, it is as though Sloan has attacked the photographs. The photographs depict the charged political environment of Northern Ireland but the way these images have been treated by Sloan seems to make them into battered remnants. Sloan’s works exist somewhere between the gestural acts of painting and the documentary features of photography.

Whereas Sloan’s images are the result of graphic interventions, Seawright’s photographs are straight documents. However, his photographs of current Northern Ireland landscapes seem to reflect on a history of modernist painting. The photograph titled ‘Smiles’ (2009) has the stark black and white grid format of a Mondrian. The image is a cropped section of a mural of two painted heads. In Seawright’s photograph the jaws of these portraits are seen with the smiles of their subjects apparent. The virtually all white photograph ‘Demands’ (2009), with its painted red text, is almost a Cy Twombly painting, while ‘White Flag’ (2009), a painted out Union Jack, nods to Jasper Johns.

Seawright works with fragments, bits of text that have either been erased or cropped. All of Seawright’s images in this series focus on text or images usually inscribed on to walls. It is interesting to consider Snoddy’s comment that ‘photography has the power…to capture events in a way the written word cannot’, since Seawright makes photographs of the written word and points to the painted image. In 2009, the art critic Michael Fried published his book ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ (Yale University Press). In it Fried argues that large-scale colour photography is now competing with painting in the gallery space. These photographs by Seawright from the same year perhaps relate to this debate about photography as art.

The subject of all three photographers showing at John Moores is Northern Ireland, but perhaps all three also consider the relationships between photography and the painted image and word (even in Jennings’ project to photograph the Maze / Long Kesh there is an emphasis upon written words and graphic images). The subject of these photographers is largely a Northern Ireland of the past, maybe this is not a ‘call to action’ but a call to pause and reflect.

Stephen Clarke

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