Bigger and Better – Mitch Epstein, S. MarkGubb and Chris Steele-Perkins at the new Open Eye Gallery

1 Dec
 A little Review I wrote at the beginning of the month for Art Feast
Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Nevada/Arizona, 2007 ©Mitch Epstein.

Sometimes bigger is better and Mitch Epstein’s inaugural show for the launch of the new Open Eye Gallery only goes to prove that point. American Power examines how energy is produced and used in the American landscape. The project began when Epstein photographed a small town in Ohio that was in the process of being ‘erased’ by the American Electrical Power Company. Residents had been ‘paid a lump sum to leave, never come back and never complain in the media or in court if they became sick from environmental complaints’.

Back in New York, Epstein could not get the experience out of his mind. Over the next six years Epstein travelled through twenty five states creating complex and extraordinarily detailed images using a large format camera. This exhibition draws together eight of the most spectacular, key works from the series.

Although eight pieces seems particularly small for an exhibition, the sheer scale and complexity of the huge photographs asserts quality over quantity. By showing less work the photographs become more immersive allowing the viewer entrance in to the environment. Particularly moving is Biloxi, Mississippi, 2005. Epstein had already planned a trip to Louisiana when hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Six weeks later, he photographed the storms devastating effects. Biloxi, Mississippi, 2005 shows the scattered wreckage of the storm. A mattress lies impaled on a tree, a car has been overturned and yet in this large scale format the wreckage becomes almost beautiful. A slight blur on a shard of material framed by an ochre sunset gives a sense of stillness and tranquility as nature seemingly sleeps off the effects of the storm. The photograph seems to transcend the destruction making it feel quite serene.

Hoover Dam and Lake Mede Nevada Arizona, 2007 is also particularly awe inspiring, presenting one of the engineering marvels of the twentieth century. Built in the 1930’s to harness water and foster the growth of the American West, this photograph gives the man-made structure a God like presence. Towering over you – the damn begins to feel threatening – almost as if it is try to intimidate you into submission and yet there is a vulnerability to the work too. A diminishing waterline scars the edge of the lake- the results of ten years of drought as well as the siphoning off of water to luxury hotels and golf courses in near by Las Vegas. Man playing at God robbing nature’s resources and deciding where they belong and deserve to be. You wonder if the earlier photographs of the hurricane are nature’s way of fighting back. The show leaves you questioning ideas of construction and destruction, man vs. nature, the damage we are creating with our over-confidence and a questioning of the resulting consequences. You feel this series is not truly finished and it never really can be; that these photos are just the beginning. A truly thought-provoking and immersive experience, this show resonates in the conscience and leaves you questioning your own relationship with nature and the unknown conflict we are engaged in.

This experience becomes echoed on the outside wall in S Mark Gubbs commissionGood Sailing….

(C) Mark McNulty

His bold geometric design uses dazzle camouflage developed during the first world war as a paint scheme  used on ships. It uses a technique borrowed for early twentieth century art. The design incorporates the last words of revolutionary American philosopher Henry David Thereau ‘ Now comes good sailing’ S mark Gubb sees the gallery as a space for discussion and debate .The use of this statement and philosophical questioning of Henry David Thereau is the perfect hopeful and inspiring statement for the opening of a new waterfront gallery.

The second floor of the gallery provides space for archive exhibitions. Chris Steele-Perkins: The Pleasure Principle is the first show to exhibit here. The Pleasure Principle is a searing photographic portrait of England in the 1980s at a time of rapid social change and political dissatisfaction. The project also probes his complex relationship with a country he has grown up in but never truly felt part of. His father was an English military officer who left his Burmese wife and brought Chris back to England at an early age. In the introduction to his Pleasure Principle book he writes ‘ I suppose if your not entirely white, you are never entirely British’

His sense of uneasiness is reflected in his strange complex photographs in Circus Elephant at Crystal Palace. We are presented with an obscured photograph which on closer inspection is the back of an elephant, its fine hairs pointing skyward, with a circus zeppelin flying high behind. this photo perhaps indicates a sense of captivity. The picture reflecting a microcosm of the artists thoughts.

Hypnosis demonstration, Cambridge University Ball. From The Pleasure Principle, 1989 © Chris Steele-Perkins.

In  Hyponsis Demonstration, Cambridge University Ball, We are shown  a group of people seemingly sleep walking. You feel unsure when viewing – It is an uneasy image that leaves you feeling on your guard. Perhaps because your not quite sure how far these subjects are being manipulated  or if the photograph is influencing you. It is a sad and complex image which has a sense of emptiness to it. A detachment to reality. This empty, detatched theme runs through out the exhibition. We become the watcher, watching the watchers. Its an interesting concept and one that does not fail to leave an impression. Chris Steele-Perkins comments

‘England is a strange place – funny, complex and sad. Distance yourself from it, experience other cultures, then look again. That strangeness becomes almost overwhelming’

And that’s exactly what these photos do. They allow you to stand back, take a breath and ponder the quirks of English culture.

The New Open Eye gallery is a decided success, and one that is well worth a visit. Every exhibition engages  and the quality of the work shown is extremely high. Photography is not to everyones taste – but the work shown transcends being merley a ‘photo’  and takes it to another level. I could not recommend the gallery enough and hope that in the future the quality of the work shown remains to this high standard. Well done Open Eye – Bigger and better!

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