Mat Collishaw

A decade ago Mat Collishaw made a name for himself as a connoisseur of catastrophe with works like Bullet Hole, 1988. This multipart photowork, which was recently featured in the “Sensation” exhibition at the Royal Academy, at first appears to be a close-up of a tropical flower with a dazzling red stamen; in fact, it is a forensic image of a bullet hole, surrounded by what looks like an aureole of human hair. In Collishaw’s more recent work, the connoisseur is still behind the camera, but he is less completely in control—as a result, there’s a newfound emotional complexity to his work that makes it maddeningly hard to place.

Collishaw’s first exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, “Duty Free Spirits,” embodied the bittersweet visual poetry found in much of his recent work. The large, three-part photo series “The Awakening of Conscience,” 1997, treats a subject worthy of Balthus with Pre-Raphaelite precision. Each photograph is a black square with a circular image in its center. The edges of the images are soft-focus in a quaint, old-fashioned way, while the centers remain crystal-clear. The photographs depict a cold, claustrophobic woodland setting, ground and trees covered in a dense carpet of ivy. In a single bright oasis in this sea of green, a dreaming young girl in a school uniform reclines languidly and suggestively on the ground, surrounded by a litter of books, solvent bottles, and alcoholic beverages.

As rigidly formal as school portraits, each woodland scene is drenched in razor-sharp light; this harshness is intensified by the glazing of the photographs, which enhances the ivy’s sterile sheen. There’s a sense here not of the awakening pointed to in the title, but of a freezing of the image, as though a moment of truth just can’t be allowed to slip away. Collishaw suggests that whenever we try to memorialize events, we inevitably end up paralyzing them. Here memory is something that shuts us off from life, signaling the dawning of an emotional ice age.

The most elaborate and absorbing work in the exhibition was Lilies, 1997. This piece was installed in a room with blacked-out windows that was partially yet brutally lit by two hare lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling. The bulbs hovered over four ornamental lily ponds that had been casually arranged on the gallery floor. The pond’s cavities were painted a funereal matte black; holding water and an array of large, flamboyantly petaled flowers, they were flanked by vases filled with smaller blooms, all made of plastic.

In the center of the largest cluster of white lilies Collishaw placed small, circular video monitors that played crudely shot and tawdrily lit films showing women standing in doorways and by the sides of roads. The sound track was muffled, but one could hear the noise of passing cars and the sound of voices. Although Collishaw does not provide an explanation for this work, one gathers that the women are authentic prostitutes. Lilies thus posits a world of fantasy, artifice, and masquerade; at the same time, this low-budget arcadia, with its floating Ophelias, demonstrates an eerie pathos. Even its ersatz quality is suggestive of fragility.

James Hall