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SUSAN DERGES: NEWLYN ART GALLERY, CORNWALL, ENGLAND - "SURFACING" ICA LONDON, ENGLAND

 

Susan Derges, full moon, photograph

 

On a windblown, rainy, Cornish morning, little long-legged birds, oblivious to the weather, peck among the debris-strewn rocks of the bay curving gloriously from Penzance to Newlyn. There, in the welcome shelter of Newlyn Art Gallery's stylish, century-old architecture, Susan Derges has filled the walls with magnetically attractive photograms.

In an era when many painters either work from photographs or use some form of photo-mechanical reproduction as an aid, Derges, a Slade-trained painter, not only moved wholeheartedly into the photographic arena but dismissed using lenses to return to an early method of drawing directly with light. To produce her near abstract images, which would look equally comfortable in a gallery or corporation headquarters, she is called upon to enter into an un-mediated relationship with the landscape.

Derges uses specially-built light-tight boxes in which to submerge Cibachrome (color paper for printing transparencies) beneath the surface of rivers or coastlines at night while exposing them to ambient and flash light. The result when processed is a dazzling, direct colour imprint of a magic moment in the night life of nature.

The extreme sharpness of the photograms is a result of allowing the paper to register light passing through a running stream or ebbing tide without the interruption of a lens. In effect, the water and any debris or life it may contain becomes the transparency to be printed. The resulting precision invites scrutiny of minute details which is in turn rewarded with a sense of heightened realism.

On the ground floor of the gallery, an early series using this process narrates the development of frog spawn into frogs by photographically freezing their shadows into William Morris-esque patterns against the earth-colored ground of murky pond water. Elsewhere Derges has captured the dramatic geometry of fractured ice in minty greens and blues.

Upstairs, much larger works from 97-8 are split into diptychs and triptychs to bring us gently vibrating pinks and lilacs and translucent electric blues and greens radiating through superb descriptions of rivers or coastlines in motion.

Photography is celebrated as the medium which enables us either to witness distant events we could not otherwise see or to capture fleeting moments only cameras make visible, but at the end of a century saturated in photographic images we may be in danger of forgetting how to touch and see the world as itself while growing to know all experience as merely quasi-photographic or filmic.

When Derges gets her hands and feet wet to produce these works she reminds us of all we've been missing while gazing through screens and cameras and reveals some of the sensual thrills in store for those willing to follow her return to the real.

Back in the city at London's ICA, a celebration of hands-on drawing is served up in "Surfacing", an entertaining exhibition co-curated by Emma Dexter and Katya Garcia-Ant who seem inspired by innovative '98 shows like "A-Z" at The Approach and "Lovecraft" at The South London Gallery.

Here drawing comes in many guises: ignominiously comical (David Shrigley), monstrously ignominious (Paul Noble), modest and delightful (Lily Van Der Stocker), funny and smart (Christopher Warmington, Nicholas Usansky), spellbindingly painstaking (Chad McCail, Ewan Gibbs), alarmingly charming (Peter Pommerer), lovingly rendered (Alessandro Roho), ironically traditional (Thomas Helbig) and traditional with a cutting edge (Gillian Carnegie).

The work of forty artists is spread high and low around the gallery in a way reminiscent of pre-Modern salons. Much is unmounted paper simply pinned up and some is framed, but whatever form the drawings take and however they are presented they invariably provide direct evidence of the hand communicating the artist's persona more clearly and sincerely than more complex media.

Almost anything is deemed drawing in this show; little areas of shading which illustrate the difference between "B and H" pencils (Mark Dickenson) or a long division sum scratched down on paper (Usansky). Keith Farquhar shows two of his dry-wipe-board drawings which reference out-dated educational text-book covers, and Paul Morrisson has painted one of his now familiar graphic landscapes direct onto the wall. Julian Opie has distilled a giant face down to a simple iconic description on a pasted-up poster and Richard Reynolds has used colored pencil to draw a massive head covering the gallery's entrance door and surrounding walls.

This eclectic approach blurs dividing lines between value systems while promoting all kinds of mark-making to share the elevated context of the institute. The result is liberating, warm, and witty while providing a microcosm of significant changes brought about in the past London art year; e.g., busy, internationalist group shows usurping the more individualist Brit-art scene while modest craft replaced the relative monumentality of the "Sensationalists".

This show is evidence of a desire to re-engage with innate human frailty through the metaphor of fragile pencil and charcoal. Like Susan Derges' work, "Surfacing" reclaims a labor intensive lo-tech medium for art from an over-mediated, de-humanizing, hi-tech-driven society and in the process makes us more comfortable in what should, after all, feel like our environment.

 

Paul O' Kane

London, England

1998