Dunedin

Peter Peryer

Dunedin Public Art Gallery

PETER PERYER'S best-known photograph may be the dead cow with legs akimbo that featured on the poster and the cover of the catalogue for Second Nature, his 1995–97 traveling exhibition curated by Peter Weiermair and Gregory Burke. But there is a back story to Peryer's coolly composed images of the '80s and '90s. Before his topsy-turvy cow inflamed the sensibilities of New Zealand meat producers, Peryer was better known for his angst-ridden photographs of the '70s, including an ongoing series of portraits of his wife, Erika Parkinson. As a document of a marriage the series is concise, at least in comparison to the more than 500 pictures Alfred Stieglitz took of Georgia O'Keeffe: This exhibition, the first to explore the cumulative dimension of the project, brings together just twenty images taken between 1975 and 1980 They record a charged collaboration that exerts unusual pressure on the conventions of portraiture. This ambiguous pact between photographer and subject makes the pictures even more timely now. Like artists as various as Gillian Wearing and Nan Goldin, Peryer was bent on making his own involvement palpable and recording the complex drives that photographs contain.

Taken around the time of Cindy Sherman's earliest “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977–80, the Erika pictures co-opt a range of photographic languages but evade an exacting typological survey. Their lack of continuity is striking. Peryer's quotation of picture-making models (Weston, Moholy-Nagy, Stieglitz, Evans, Arbus, and postcards of Polynesian princesses) is romantic rather than rigid. Products of the cusp of postmodernism, they arrive near the terrain of constructed photography haphazardly. The discontinuity among the images suggests a debunking of the artificiality of the photographic process, yet the pictures are engrossed in artifice. From the dark, fin-de-siècle glamour of a tightly cropped 1977 image of Erika in fabulously flared bob and kimono to the scowling Erika clasping together the coat draped over her two years later, these pictures are blatantly engaged with arch and arbitrary modes of photographic mythmaking. Erika is often unrecognizable, but two attitudes prevail. Either her gaze is obliterated by the combined force of kohl-rims and pooling shadows, or she stares out at the camera disconsolately, arms crossed and hands concealed. In a 1980 work Erika appears as the touristic image of a Maori maiden, poised before a blurry waterfall, hair pulled back severely, wearing bone necklace and single hoop earring. Only the smile emblematic of cheerful otherness is missing. This troubling image has connections to one of New Zealand's most problematic self-portraits: Rutu, Rita Angus's 1951 self-representation as an imaginary blond Polynesian goddess. Angus's engagement with self-portraiture effectively derailed her earlier variation on American regional realism. Peryer's portraits of Erika operate similarly. Through relentless photographing of Erika, Peryer focuses his own photographic vision. He meddles with the photographic fiction of continuity as part of the process of opening up a larger world of fictional possibility.

Everything about the quality of these prints—their gritty photo-primitivism, their darkness, grain, and intimate scale—seems designed to channel you toward the smoldering photographic surface. Making portrait after portrait of Erika looks like Peryer's method of testing his photographic practice. She becomes his measure rather than muse, his means of comprehending his own work. Ultimately the artist is more interested in making photographs than portraits. His Erika pictures display a variation on uxoriousness—an excessive fondness for photography.

Anna Miles