21 February - 30 March 2013
21 February - 30 March 2013
Some teenagers, I imagine, experience life with accomplished ease. Grades are met without difficulty; friends and lovers fall into place naturally; and sport is a healthy outlet for the exuberance of physical growth. For the rest of us, adolescence is a juddering process of unfolding doubt. Our bodies betray us, erupting in spots and giddy, unspeakable desires. Kindly parental myths of Tooth Fairies and Santa, learnt in early childhood, can no longer bind us to the happy illusion that the universe centres upon us. What do we learn? Nothing lasts: friends betray us; grannies die; facts given by authority figures (mum, dad, and teacher) are a tissue of lies.
Paul Chiappe’s latest series of drawings focuses on this dark moment of adolescence, which he captures in a sequence of images based on a single, found photograph of what appears to be a class portrait. Lined up in tiers, we see teenagers in uniform (and, in some, a solitary teacher) facing the camera and doing their best to look presentable. The scenario is familiar from Chiappe’s earlier drawings which are often based on photographs (which he finds on the internet or in second-hand shops) of school classes or theatrical productions. Chiappe’s earlier works often focussed on pre-teenage years, and accentuated elements of fantasy associated with the darkly playful imagination of childhood. Masks and costumes featured frequently. But sometimes these visages were a little too real to be masks – here and there, the adult faces of Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler peer out at us from the kindergarten crowd.
Chiappe’s drawings pack a heavy punch. In their painstaking rendering (it takes weeks, sometimes months to complete one), they suggest that the way we consume images in the digital era is best countered by the slowness of graphite and ink. They suggest too that photographs of our pasts can replace actual memories, and that this slippage can be a source of creativity. More importantly, this redeployment of old, black-and-white photography becomes an analogy for something larger than a personal history: they stand for a century of emulsion-based image making. In this sense, the motif of photography–as–death, as decoded by Roland Barthes, can be detected. For Barthes, a photo always prefigures a sort of death, for the captured moment is always lost to time. Indeed, for an older generation of artists, such as Christian Boltanski, the photograph was invoked as the document of loss, such as photos of those who died in Nazi concentration camps. Chiappe’s works recall this ontology of death: each image looks like the record of a crime, a puzzle that cannot be solved.
It is important to note that, despite being based on the same photograph, Chiappe’s new drawings each feature a different number of figures. Children vanish inexplicably from one image to the next. A bright flash throws a harsh shadow onto the wall (hinting, perhaps, at Weegee’s nocturnal crime scenes). These haphazard disappearances may also operate as a metaphor for the uncertainty of adolescence itself. Does anyone notice you exist; and would they notice if you disappeared? Personally, I relish the melodramatic inference that, if these images show an artistically constructed ‘crime’, it is the artist himself who is the ‘murderer’…