As the curator explains in Pilar Corrias Gallery’s exhibition catalogue, Julião Sarmento is not exclusively a photographer, but this exhibition is an attempt to thematically group and exhibit the part of his photographic work that had never been shown. Therefore visitors who did not know him before, like myself, enter his world through one angle that is in no way representative of the totality of his work.
The idea of doing a *partly* retrospective show is interesting. It is retrospective in the sense that it goes back into the archive of an entire body of work (over 42 years), but at the same time it is not, since it is far from a complete overview of the artist’s range of activities. The thematic choice of women images gives continuity to the show and (apparently) to the artist’s career. This is complimented by the hanging choices: everything in one single, rectangular, empty, white room. Everything in same-sized frames and hung in a tight single line at eye level, levelling all the differences in colour, sizes, atmospheres, subjects, and time. I liked this balance of variety and sameness, of depth and flatness.
The portraits themselves (because, as is underlined in the catalogue’s text, this is all about portraiture) are striking. Every woman bears strong features and seem to reveal – judging from their surface as is often indulged in with portraits – interesting personalities. Nothing is said as to what their relationship with the photographer are and whether we are in the realm of fashion modelling or of private life. This remark links me back to the Denis Piel exhibition I last reviewed.
Many parallels can be drawn between these two shows, and I would like to insist on a few. In both retrospectives (I am going to call this a retrospective) the question of the male photographer’s gaze upon his female models arises. First on the part of the model: what performance of their femininity do these women present to the camera, and how do they position themselves on the scale from intimacy to performance (private-public)? The relationship between the female model and the male photographer enacts the usual genre performance and production that goes on daily in society. And no matter if the pictures were made for editorial/fashion purposes or for an art project, I remarked that the women always seem to be performing. In Sarmento’s photos, so many of them are getting ready, doing their hair or their make-up. The women are well aware of their being observed , and therefore are putting on a show of themselves, be it by dancing, moving or other acts. Nudity was heavily represented, just like in Piel’s show, and would deserve an analysis of its own.
On another note, I observed that both shows relied on the ambiguous ability of the “retrospective” to provide a suitable context for the works. While the exhibition model of the “retrospective” often proves successful in illuminating the artist’s career as a whole (admittedly not in Sarmento’s case, and this is what made me generalise this thought to all kinds of retrospective endeavours), it also often fails to provide the necessary context for the individual works. Think about it: both bodies of work show scenes, or what seem like stage sets with the same quality than that found in film stills (Cindy Sherman is amongst us. But hey, she challenges the representation of womanhood!). This has the advantage of prompting the viewer’s imagination and fostering narratives that may bear no relation to the actual context of the image. This in turn removes the possibility of shedding any kind of clarity upon the work’s reality (if we consider that knowing the artist’s intent and any context at all has anything to do with an artwork’s “truth”). The exhibition’s achievement becomes that of having triggered the viewer’s imagination and inspired them, which is fine if we consider that a work is half-created by the beholder. But it is not an achievement of learning that a public museum would be after.
Having said that, this was no museum but a commercial gallery, therefore awakening the viewer’s mind and making him feel special when he looks at the images might well be the way to making sales. In my case, it prompted me to make a review!
Julião Sarmento | 75 PHOTOGRAPHS, 35 WOMEN, 42 YEARS | 15 May – 27 June 2013 | Pilar Corrias Gallery