Melbourne

Graeme Hare

The Art Gallery

Graeme Hare’s recent photographs hover between abstraction and figuration. In this they are consistent with his earlier “Backgrounds” pieces, oddly blank works that mimic urban landscape’s background detail, yet deny sufficient referents to establish the narratives they so strongly suggest. The bichromate photographs in this exhibition oscillate between an anachronistic pleasure in landscape’s expressive potential and a fastidious and most contemporary retreat from any imaging of the real. Hare grouped his photographs in an installation of landscape tropes: trees against sky, city nocturnes, pastoral panoramas, ships at sea. Together, the photographs seem to be both illustrations within an endless narrative and items of an indeterminate taxonomy. The sources are various—Hare’s own travels, images from books, and friends’ foreign snapshots. All are linked by the bichromate’s velvety chiaroscuro, and all the images have been rephotographed at least once. Like most images in post-Modern photography, they have been selected and manipulated to fit constructed ensembles. Gouache and photosensitive emulsion are painted onto torn rag paper; the developing image is modified by brushing away toward the darker tones. This, and the irregular marks of washing, result in an overlay of feathery transparent brush-marks resembling oil painting’s glazes, an effect not unlike the nostalgic patina in early Edward Steichen.

What is strange about Hare’s photographs is that they are so traditional, and that they allow such anachronistic responses in the name of contemporaneity. Hare is clearly interested in the salvage of certain types of landscape representation that are sometimes assumed to be exhausted. These images are, in fact, enactments, or counterfeitings, of the centered discourse of romantic landscape. Hare’s vision of the natural world as enlarged landscape architecture is articulated clearly by the theatricality in works such as Bondi as a ruin, 1989, and Nocturne: Melbourne reversed, 1989. For the most part, Hare has eliminated spatial transition from his works—they are either all foreground, middle ground, or background. Landscape’s capacity to suggest infinite extension is limited by torn borders and dark mattes. The imperfections of bichromate photography—the suppression of detail and elimination of tonal gradation—contribute to this fragile sense of the stage, upon which Hare does not seek any central position. His basic economy of response is more like a descent into anxiety.

Although Hare presents various modes of landscape, his self-conscious exaggeration and artful obscurities insist on a contradictory vision. Interminable, inevitable projections of ourselves onto the natural world make genuine landscapes invisible, unattainable. Detail: Spirit with figure, 1989, with its ghosts and fugitive traces, reinforces this continual sense of incompleteness. Hare takes advantage of photography’s capacity to speak of the familiar with a terrific distance. In these works, fragments are called upon to bear the vast weight of history so that we may enact the most valued of contemporary rituals—escape.

Charles Green