Robert ParkeHarrison

Stolen Summer, 2006
Scribe, 2006
Black Snow, 2006

Robert ParkeHarrison is, essentially, a surrealist steampunk environmentalist, the prodigal lovechild of Gilbert Garcin and Matthew Barney raised on Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and as you might imagine based on these convoluted descriptions and the photographs above, he's a frightening man.

The three images above and two below, more recent work from the infuriating slideshow applet on his website, are probably best understood in the vein of Barney's Drawing Restraint, although the role of the copious quantities of congealed petroleum jelly in Drawing Restraint - a canvas both unremarkably uniform and unpredictably chaotic, moulded as much by the sophisticated internal interactions within its heaving mass as by the bizarre rituals enacted on it, around it and in it by Barney - is replaced here by a blanket of snow.

The first image, Stolen Summer, is one of the more shocking; the obscene decadence and ruthlessness of the countless crucifixions is absurd, delicately radiant and utterly repulsive. The sickly pallor of the hands at work in the lower register suggests a compulsive fervour in the work of the collector, redolent with moral decay. Scribe is a concept that Barney might well covet. The traditional depiction of 'drawing restraint', its fetishistic, exhausting transference of the contents creative mind onto canvas and the resultant blurring of an individual's identity with his work, has often been a bloody quill; the device strapped to the disembodied hand is admittedly a tortuously efficient incarnation. This destructive entropy of interpreting (or reprocessing) the environment is a major and recurrent theme of his dystopic scenery, and the message here is darker and more subtle than the more directly suggestive environmental moralising in his earlier collections The Architect's Brother (esp. Reliquary, Cloud Cleaner and Breathing Machine) and Exhausted Globe (see below). Black Snow is bizarrely optimistic, depicting a beached and broken industrial 'whale' staining the snow with a pale blood of rust and oil. Like Overflow (see below) it inverts a more common image of nature perishing in the clutches of industry; Dream Fall (see below) could also be interpreted as an absurd subversion of rainfall in the same vein.

Dream Fall, 2002
Overflow, 2006

The entire range of his work has clear tendencies towards the surreal and the steampunk; the compositions, studio sets built and enacted by ParkeHarrison himself, depict 'industry' as a series of Rube Goldberg machines, awkwardly attempting to replace the work done by nature (cf. Airway, The Sower). Images lacking this strong formulaic style, such as those above, plunge further into a more dreamlike world of soft urban skylines, prominently displaying another feature of ParkeHarrison photography: the absence of distinctive human portraits.

The figures in his world are ghostly blurs or disembodied limbs in his more recent work, and an unremarkable middle-aged corporate businessman in older work, effectively a bland 'everyman'. The starkly ethereal Dream Fall (top) is amongst his more whimsical compositions, eschewing his usual blood-and-iron brutality in favour of a quieter, more personal level of entropy. Equally the drowned world of Overflow, with its furniture and unfortunate occupant bobbing in a placid lake the colour of algae bloom, has the sinister undertone of a bleak ParkeHarrison utopia where civilisation has been overcome and ruthlessly blanketed over (cf. Reclamation). One man's utopia might easily become a nightmare for the rest of humanity, but this particular hell is decisively quiet.

Exhausted Globe, 1997
Departure, 1997
Consumption, 1997

This early series from the collection held at the George Eastman House, Exhausted Globe, depicts attempts to 'patch the sky' and, quaintly, abandon the spent planet via jet pack. Clearly influenced by Le Petit Prince, these aluminium prints are the bluntest expression of disenchantment demonstrated in terms of absurd, delusional hope and manifestly forlorn attempts to preserve the inextricably condemned. ParkeHarrison's work is rife with cynicism, black humour and sinister misanthropy, and it is beautifully executed. Perhaps unfortunately, it is his aesthetic sensitivity and subtlety that undermines his message. The sense of inevitability and human frailty in these images is so profoundly, even morbidly, fascinating that it inspires nothing more active than horrifically fixated appreciation; ParkeHarrison does not seem to suggest or desire a 'better' world; if anything he longs for the stark, murky landscape in the window of Overflow.

In the end, ParkeHarrison doesn't want a restoration of environmental harmony. He wants a jet pack.

also on aS.blogspot


No. 223

No. 223, as Chinese photographer Lin Zhi Peng is arguably better known, is the forerunner in a collective of modern photographers whose work graces the pages of New Photography in China by 3030 Press, published last year. The reviewers of auspiciousdragon.net argue of the book that 'these are young photographers indeed, and the photos contain a heavy mix of the sort of self-obsessed, crude, and banal that you might expect from a similar collection anywhere in the rich world...that is, these young photographers are being normal'.

Even from the few images displayed with this post, it should be obvious that to use the term 'normal' to describe the behaviour exhibited in 223's extensive archive of images is an extremely cynical move on behalf of the birdwatching duo responsible for auspiciousdragon, which takes a boldly eclectic approach to sharing expertise on photography, culinary techniques and cancer. It's not hard to see their point; whilst Abbey Drucker's sweetly nostalgic work betrays a dated, unsophisticated sense of humour, Lin Zhi Peng occasionally demonstrates a painfully modern and equally immature attraction to the comic potential of bodily fluids and poor visual innuendo...

If Guy Bourdin has shot the above, 'bumbum cock', it would just be highly questionable art. I honestly think, however, it might be preferable in the context of 223's portfolio to give him the benefit of the doubt and classify this under 'mildly amusing mistake'. 223 clearly has a sense of humour that keeps him working in the boundary between 'surreal' and 'ridiculous'; he stumbles over both sides of the line with an immense range of emotional tone perfectly executed with coherent style, refined composition, sensitive yet modern lighting and recurrent themes. There is a healthy dose of immaturity in his choice of subject that rarely bleeds over into his technique, and it is this immaturity that is the source of his flair, energy, experimentalism and intimacy with a strange, vivid subculture of lithe adolescents drunk on adrenaline and radiating sexual tension.

Whilst it may align itself with some of the enduring stereotypes of 'youth culture, 'normal' doesn't even nearly cut it. The image used on the cover of New Photography in China depicts the faceless half of a girl in pink tights squatting and spitting a stream of what has been identified (by Theme Magazine, without any supporting evidence) as soy milk, past her exposed crotch and onto the ground between her feet; a striking, stomach-turning composition ripe with chemically-heightened libidinous energy (or 'punk', if you will) and the major export of Japan: the fucking surreal.

In a very intelligent, if not particularly incisive, interview with PingMag 223 relates the philosophy of new, younger artists created by the democracy of blogging and digital distribution - 'if you like it, do it'. Trite as this soundbite may be, the most sceptical critic cannot deny that the charm of this approach is pervasive in his portfolio.

Whatever the qualities of his already sizeable collection on Flickr, it is clear from his most recent images that his style is developing. More bleak landscapes with flecks of colour and swirls of snow and foam are replacing the luminous youths throwing milk and cats caught on the windowsill, and his technique is providing ample support for his experimentation. New images appear on his disturbingly tacky blog, designed by 223 himself and not boding especially well for this year's follow-up to New Photography in China produced by members of the same collective, New Graphic Design in China; following his chain of thought, however, will present difficulties to those without a working knowledge of Chinese. To assist the dwindling majority of those who don't, the link '下一页' appears to take you to the proceeding page.

223 may have all the warning indicators of a gimmick, but there is substance and sensitivity in his prolific work. As one blogger describes, many of the images prove unforgettable.

also on aS.blogspot


Abbey Drucker

Google informs me that photographer Abbey Drucker has an exciting life. If you think anything could possibly aspire to be more exciting than shooting such luminaries as Chingy and Paris Hilton, you might be more envious of her work on the album cover for The National's 'Boxer', her liaison with Interpol's Paul Banks or the bewildering information that at least one sugar-hyped blogger claims that her 'moral barometer' is founded on asking herself the question, 'Would Abbey Drucker Laugh?'.

As a rule, I would guess that the standard answer to that question is an understated 'No...'. Extensive galleries of her work - though not, from a quick browse of her client list, as extensive as you might have expected - on her portfolio website show a very feminine approach to the tapering feline silhouettes of contemporary fashion culture, simultaneously candid and flattering. Tousled hair, smudged eyeliner and various states of undress give a sense of unthreatening voyeurism, cliché but not overdone. Her subjects seem genuinely unaware of her presence in the room; the sexual tension of fashion photography is clearly lacking, for better or worse, and the viewer is a diminuitive contribution to the bustling activity. Only the teenagers she photographs snarl and pout into the frame, radiating unfocussed lust and spiritual angst. Many scenes demonstrate an effective, if sentimental, nostalgia for a 'vintage' era; noir influences and pageant beauty are enhanced with grainy monochrome and light cross-processing. In a sense she captures the real traces in society of the scenes staged by Gregory Crewdson and recreated time and time again - Vanity Fair's Hitchcock spread being the most interesting recent example.

Her two 'personal' galleries, unfortunately, do reveal a certain lack in her sense of humour. She may not be pretentious, driven more by an appreciation of beauty than by the need to 'represent', but there is clearly something a little bland about her ambitions. The images are quietly quirkly, sweetly diminuitive, not in the least controversial. The tired humour of a man with a hot dog suggestively position on a plate in his lap and a row of beach joggers showing off their variously tanned behinds in an unimpressive array of identical thongs is nostalgic in a more tacky, dated sense, refusing to toy with modern themes or standards.

Abbey Drucker is, without a doubt, an asset to the industry and the creator of highly worthy images for the public domain. Sadly, this may say more about the industry than about the creative significance of her work. Essentially, in the 50s or the 80s - where she clearly feels more at home - her portfolio might well have been commonplace.

also on aS.blogspot