Matt Collishaw

For his recent show at Karsten Schubert, Mat Collishaw transformed the gallery by painting the walls a dark red and splitting the room in two with a wire fence, into a space reminiscent of a Victorian-era red-light district. On either side of the fence, Collishaw had installed separate pieces. Both evoked a sheer delight in spectacle reminiscent of the early days of motion pictures and of late-19th-century optical devices, while addressing the urban poverty that is as prevalent today as it was in Dickens’ age.

One of these two works, accompanied by a recording of jaunty accordion music, comprised a series of photographs—each depicting a busker begging for money—revolving on a drum as if in imitation of an antique optical device. These photographs were filmed by a video camera and then projected onto the wall. In the second piece a contemporary image of a rather poignant scene—an emotionally charged fiction involving a mother and child begging in the undergound—was projected onto a large snow globe filled with water and glitter stars, of the sort once typically given as Christmas presents.

At the Camden Arts Centre, however, some of the photographs and video works exhibited had an air of self-absorbed theatricality. Collishaw’s use of video technology at times fails to resolve the contradictions that arise when one uses high-tech means to conjure an intensely imaginative world. A sequence of partially hand-tinted photographs depicting the artist trying to catch fairies in the pond of a public park, for example, which reproduced a famous 19th-century photograph, lacked the magic of the original, while a series of photographic images of tombstone angels in the next room—printed in ultraviolet ink and visible only under special lighting—were, despite the illusion of three-dimensionality, somewhat dully repetitive.

The temptation to view his illusionism as a chic experiment aside, there is a disconcerting edge to Collishaw’s objects that is decidedly appealing. The best piece here, a wardrobe with a two-way mirror in-stalled on its front and a photograph of a forest placed inside, evoked C. S. Lewis’ mythical land of Narnia and all the pathos of its inaccessibility. The forest was visible when one stood motionless in front of it, or viewed it from a distance, but the image vanished when one moved toward it—creating through its uneasy balance of fiction and surveillance a tension that was lacking in the other pieces.

Collishaw has returned to the sensationalism of his earlier work in an effort to unearth what lies beneath the everyday, but when he investigates the ephemeral world of fairies, apparitions, shadows, and reflections, his sleight of hand sometimes fails to strike a balance between what is drawn and how it is drawn. In other works, he recalls the delight in the mechanisms of pictorial illusion that accompanied the advent of photography and moving pictures.

Martin Maloney