Many thanks to Vanessa Berry for her excellent piece on our current exhibition.
The air feels charged when a storm is imminent, the electric sense that rain is on its way. I’d been watching the gathering storm in the sky as I made my way to the gallery, and entered the hallway with my thoughts still up there in the electrified clouds. It was the right frame of mind to encounter Adam Norton’s Visionaries. The deft, detailed black and white portraits are of scientists, scholars and writers who pursued unexplained phenomena and guided our thinking beyond the terrestrial world. Their work and ideas are more familiar than their faces: Dr John Mack, the controversial Harvard psychiatry professor who studied alien abductees; astronomer Dr Jill Tarter whose search for extra-terrestrial life inspired Jodi Foster’s character in Contact; and the prolific, paranoid, sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, whose novels are dystopian parables for contemporary culture.
Individual encounters with the immensity of the universe take an intimate form in Tim Corne’s series of redrafted ambrotypes. A form of wet-plate photography popular in the mid-nineteenth century, ambrotypes were displayed in cases which opened like lockets to reveal the framed image inside. Corne carefully gathered a collection of damaged ambrotypes from antique stores as the basis for these works. Now the cases contain the ambrotype images reconfigured: galaxies and constellations formed by working into the chemical reactivation of the emulsion. The dynamism of the chemical process remains in the blotched, stippled surfaces so in their reworked state they seem animate. If you were to snap one of the cases shut, it would be like closing the curtains on a night sky: the constellations inside continuing their slow, astronomical movement.
I have followed the trail of visionaries upstairs to the top of the gallery and they have led me to galaxies. Now I follow another trail back downstairs, one this one beginning with the soft, smudged figures of Mason Mulholland’s Gridiron Girls. The figures are piled together at the centre of the image, shoulder pads like wings, frozen in a split second of motion. The sport is one of force, but here the moment is softened and the figures seem to meld together.
This tension between the gentle and the powerful continues in the main room of the gallery, with Elizabeth Rankin’s set of six large drawings. They are inverted faces composed of layered charcoal and wax, their expressions ones of inscrutable peace. Their somnolence is a contrast to the busy room, where people are gathered chatting, full of vitality; the faces feel like the room’s silent guardians. It’s not immediately apparent to me that these are faces of the dead, but when I realise this I feel a rush of tenderness towards them. Elizabeth described to me how she builds the image from an initial charcoal drawing, then layers of wax and oil, caressing the page as she works on it. This process explains, perhaps, their moody empathy.
The faces of the two women in Baklang Sok’s video work The Absence are obscured by their long hair which falls forward to hang down in a smooth slick of shiny black. The women lean into each other, embracing, holding the pose and trying to remain as still as possible. But there is always movement, even if slight. In tiny motions their hair shivers, their bodies shuffle. This, like the exposed faces of Rankin’s portraits, is from the soft and quiet realm of human feeling, the realm of contemplation. And perhaps this is what unites all the works in this month’s exhibition at Home, a sense of contemplation, and what portraits, in their many forms, reflect back onto our engagement with the universe, and with each other.