Published  05/09/2007

Keith Arnatt: I'm a Real Photographer

Keith Arnatt: I'm a Real Photographer

The Photographers' Gallery
5 & 8 Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7HY
29th June – 2nd September 2007

Currently exhibiting at the Photographers' Gallery, Arnatt's work focuses mainly on images of waste. But in the spirit of John Cage, who emancipated extraneous sounds, the traffic hum or police siren, allowing them to intermingle with the sounds of violins and the like, Arnatt attends, through the lens, to things that have been forgotten, left, thrown away, discarded or orphaned.

The series 'Pictures from a Rubbish Tip' (1988-89) is a body of work devoted to images of decomposing food, some in their plastic wrappers, some naked; all of which have a delicate, almost transcendental, beauty. Arnatt uses the medium of photography with the sensibility of a painter. Colour is important to him, and this comes out in one image depicting a strip of bacon and a piece of eggshell against a backdrop of plastic partially obscuring a pink floral pattern behind. But it is not the inventory of items depicted which makes this picture arresting, it is, rather, a certain undefined quality, perhaps the way the light falls on the objects, or the way the plastic conceals and mutes the things behind, in this instance, making a composition of rubbish appear as if painted in the manner of a Flemish painting. Perhaps it is because the effect of making what could be described as dirty plastic appear as fine gauze or muslin, or the care with which these items of rubbish are composed: each is attributed with a value by its relation to the others. What ever it is, Arnatt has transformed the unwanted into something, at least pictorially, highly desirable. But when Arnatt plays directly with the ambiguity of objects, as he does in his series 'Canned Sunsets' (1990-91) the transformation from literal into figurative seems contrived by comparison.

In 'Howler's Hill' (1987-88) Arnatt depicts everyday objects: a blue embroidered cushion rests on a litter-strewn ground, its blueness so vibrant it appears to have seeped into the earth itself. And in 'Tears of Things' (Objects from a Rubbish Tip) 1990-91, he depicts single items on a makeshift plinth: the head of a doll, a brush with some of its bristles caked in gunk, a cracked red lightbulb covered with a film of brown dust, a doll's torso with a foot thrust forward covered in black gloss paint.

The theme of rubbish also runs through his earlier works: 'Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty' (1982-84) is a set of black and white images very different in character from his later works. For one thing the subtleties of mid-tone, and the degrees of detail, say, of an old stone wall, are similar to that of platinum printing. Unlike the rich colour and form found in 'Pictures from a Rubbish Tip' (1988-89), these images are tentative, and require the viewer to observe with care. These images speak not so much of decay as of the passing of time: a wall thickly encrusted with cement bulging forward at its girth by the pressure from a tree behind is recorded in one image, whilst in another, a lone figure gazes across a still lake at the shell of a cottage; its roof having caved in long ago. There are images too of discarded items. For example, in 'Miss Grace's Lane' (1986-87), scenes of the countryside are speckled with items: an orange plastic bag caught in some bulrushes, or a child's plastic kite fastened high in some tree branches.

What ever else Arnatt does, he makes the observer aware of how we value things, and how things could be otherwise valued, given the right conditions. What is the use of post-it notes except to convey instruction at a particular time? When he records his wife's post-it notes, he is giving value to something essentially transitory.

Sophie Arkette

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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