Stuart Bailes’ pictures first strike you as dark visual enigmas. And fortunately, the exhibition at Edel Assanti is small, therefore you can spend some time observing only those few works and take them in without rush. You go from wondering what has been photographed to how he did it. Your brain plays with scale and texture before being able to read the image. When you get closer, it feels fantastic to be confronted to analogue prints with a deep black colour, even though the glass over it kills the depth to leave you with a peculiar reflection of yourself, which you always wonder whether it is supposed to be part of the work.
I was surprised by the nature of the works that were juxtaposed: some appear very abstract while others are bluntly figurative. Aesthetically, as well as in the subject matter, they are heterogeneous: the rugged texture of wood and the vigorous movement of flags in the wind face the cold and geometrical lines of studio experiments. The glossy Polaroids certainly are a contrast to the larger format works.
The text True Lies by the show curator Nadim Samman that accompanies the works put them into perspective with the history of photography. As is common with contemporary art, you feel that the mere sensory experience that you had of the works was deemed to miss the conceptual point, somehow.
The reference to Malevitch and his geometrical vision of the surface of the earth from an airplane is really interesting to give some depth to Bailes’ geometrical research. I was especially inspired by Samman’s reference to the “great reduction of the pictorial world to a Black Square”. Since you don’t necessarily recognise them as photographs at first, their blackness seems like a strong statement.
However I did not understand the text’s reference to Thomas Demand, Jeff Wall, and the Dusseldorf school, even if it was to contrast their work from Bailes. His work certainly is not narrative, documentary or figurative like theirs, but I refuse to think that his formal and conceptual exploration is reducible to the negation of other styles. It is more trying to assert something. I would have turned towards the American photographic tradition. The work of Harry Callahan, for instance, offers a good point of comparison for some aspects of Bailes’ images. Their common use of very contrasted blacks and whites, their manipulation of the way light reveals objects, and the whole ‘abstract photography’ paradigm upon which they are building and from which they seek to depart would be interesting to compare. I am thinking specifically of Callahan’s weed studies from 1948.
The Informants resonate rather strangely with Moholy-Nagy’s studies of colour photography, in which he used coloured filters, just like Bailes. But Bailes photographed in black and white the coloured plastic sheets, revealing a very subtle scale of grey shades. It is as if the discovery of colour photography back then could be paralleled with Bailes’ black aesthetic (re-)discovery of today. Or as if Bailes had photographed in black Moholy-Nagy’s colour photographs.
This small show of a selection of Stuart Bailes’ works therefore raises questions on different levels: on the images themselves – What are they? Where do they take us? – and on their relationship with written concepts and on photographic legacy.
Stuart Bailes | 25 April – 2 June 2012 | Edel Assanti