Above: It's Only Love Give it Away by Wolfgang Tillmans. Credit: Wolfgang Tillmans, 2005.


Shape of Light is a helluva awful show, that is my view. The big problem with the show is the curatorial intention to render the term abstract rather meaningless by nominating and including all manner of figurative photography as instances of abstraction.

In the art of the 20th century, abstract opposes figurative art: polarization and enmity between the two approaches to art practice fuel much of the narrative adventures of various antagonistic factions. Figurative art is art (including artistic photography) in which some aspect or aspects of what has been--or could be--seen with one's eyes, is depicted by the artist (including fantasy and impossible places). Popular subject matter: a portrait, a chair, a street-view, a view out in the countryside, etc. Abstract art is different, and not the same. In abstract art the artist (including the artistic photographer) has a go a representing an experience, or a state-of-mind, or just the pursuit of the visual enjoyment of pattern-making, using only shape, pattern, colour, mark-making, and so forth. Abstraction is art-making free from the burden of the requirement to create a visual likeness to some object, place, or person. That is the use of abstraction: it allows for the spiritual, metaphysical, and non-concrete to enter the art rectangle.

One of the most confusing and annoying things about Shape of Light is that what is offered up as "abstract" is very often figuration. So, for example, the hall-of-mirrors photos by Kertesz are not abstract, they are extreme distortions of the body, but it is always very evidently a woman's body that is getting distorted (Chambers: deform, contort, bend, misshape, disfigure, pull about, rack, twist, jumble, screw up, warp, buckle, hamper, torment, wrench, wrest, wring, garble, mangle, skew). So it is not abstract art. Equally, for another example, Ralph Gibson's photos are often rather minimal, so much so that it is not always immediately clear what the image is a detail of, but still, his photos are always details captured from the real world. Minimalist or minimalistic would be a good adjective to use to describe his work. But the photos are not abstract.

In the picture above, Wolfgang Tillmans has used wet-darkroom photo-chemicals to create a pretty and evocative pattern on photo-paper. There is no subject matter--the lines don't represent anything definite. The title gives the viewer some guidance as to what the creator was thinking about or what the patterns make him think about--or what he wants his viewer to think about--but ultimately the photo is completely abstract: it refers only to a mood, an emotion, a state-of-mind.

Unless we are getting into an advanced art discussion it can help a lot to keep a distinction between figurative and abstract in mind. It's not at all useful to conflate and confuse these two terms, particularly if you are new to art-and-photography appreciation. Simon Baker's show attempts to widen the scope of abstraction to include lots of figuration--who knows why?--which adds up to a daunting, perplexing (and annoying) exhibition of historical photography.

(28 August 2018)