3 February 2015

Francesca Woodman at the Oriel Davies, Newtown

Hopes high today setting out for Newtown and the Francesca Woodman exhibition at Oriel Davies, Newtown. What little I've seen of her work online I have liked and, in common with lots of her fans, my admiration has been deepened and at the same time tainted with sadness at the thought of her suicide at the tragically young age of 22 following a tussle with The Black Dog - but for that bastard dog, what might have been?

So, from Powis Castle to Newtown, a nice drive along a sunny but cold stretch of the Severn valley, snow on the hills in the distance - cold but beautiful weather, a bit like the photographs I was going to see? Well, the hope was there. Not only do I like her pictures, but I was excited at the prospect of seeing a photographer's work so close to home, not something that happens especially often in this part of the world. So I went straight in to the exhibition as soon as I arrived and....

... and it was all a bit underwhelming. My immediate impression was "wow, they're tiny!" Most of the prints were about 4 X 4 inches or thereabouts, though there were a smattering of larger pictures on one side which might have been six by six. Were they small for a reason? It was hard not to think that perhaps they were small because they wouldn't stand up to scrutiny had they been any larger, such was the lack of interesting subject matter.  Of course it is arguable that they may have been small so as to encourage a sense of intimacy, something her life story and the subject of her pictures themselves encourage: the viewer's knowledge of her sad early death suggests that her psyche is intimately entwined with her work in a way not necessarily evident in a Steiglitz or a Sally Mann and going small means one has to get in close, work a bit harder at seeing. And, whilst not exactly self-portraits, and certainly not selfies (they are too unflinching for that), Woodman's inclusion of herself in so many of her pictures encourages her audience to imagine that they are externalised images of her internal world and therefore need the extra work of close scrutiny - you wouldn't give all your secrets away to those who couldn't be bothered to try and understand you a little bit, would you? But the fact that they are so small meant, for this slightly myopic viewer, I felt distanced from the work rather than closer to it; worse, the strain of discerning what they showed didn't, sadly, seem worth it.

Oddly empty and vapid-seeming, I went for a coffee and then a second look, in case me and my Male Gaze had missed something the first time round, but I left still thinking that nothing much was being said. The use of mirrors as a prop, used to hide behind rather than to display the artist - it promises much but in these tiny prints, delivers little. Smooth skin against rough walls - it's a trope that's been done to death, especially in photography. There simply weren't enough interesting pictures on display - the photographer naked beneath a precariously balanced door could be a development of the work of Bill Brandt and merits a bit of study, but the unreadable pictures showing Woodman moving about an empty room, no props in view, say nothing very much at all. Even trying to read the display as a whole, taking all the pictures into account as best I can with my Western sensibilities, there was an elegiac air over the whole thing, perhaps because of the knowledge of Woodman's short and tragic life, but also because the exhibition felt empty and unfinished. There is interesting, beautiful work out there - I've seen some of it on the web - but there wasn't much of it here.

Outside the gallery there was this:

The winter sun was being reflected in a warm concentrated beam from the roof of the gallery onto a young birch tree - it was a sight much needed.

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