February 2011, Hannah Starkey @ Mead Gallery


Hannah Starkey, Untitled August 1999
Courtesy, the artist

 

Hannah Starkey: Twenty Nine Pictures
Warwick Arts Centre, Mead Gallery
University of Warwick
Gibbet Hill Road, Coventry CV4 7AL
15 January through 12 March, 2011

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Constructs: Space and Perception in Hannah Starkey’s Twenty-Nine Pictures

 

 

One of the most striking elements in this exhibition of Hannah Starkey’s monumental c-type print photographs on aluminum – her first solo retrospective in a decade – is the use of the word ‘picture’. Starkey’s images persistently pulse with a narrative quality which unashamedly draws us into an imagined yet plausible world. The images are fictional and carefully constructed. Yet there is a modernist spontaneous credibility that aligns them with the Impressionists’ optimistic pursuit of capturing fleeting moments of urban life in a manner that invited sustained looking and pushed the boundaries of painting. This exhibition, which takes place in Warwick Arts Centre’s Mead Gallery between January and March 2011, has been thoughtfully curated by Diarmuid Costello. Costello is co-director of the AHRC-funded research project, ‘Aesthetics After Photography’ and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Warwick. His approach is therefore rigorously scholarly, though his research trajectory is evident as a light touch in the Mead’s white-walled and wood-floored partitioned spaces. When I arrived at the opening this Friday evening, a faint odour of the final coat of paint hung in the air, an unintentional reminder of the importance of curatorial agency in establishing order. In an interview with Starkey for the exhibition catalogue, Costello enquired, ‘what should I make of the [subject’s] relationship to their environment? Where is the agency being located in the image?’ Tantalizingly, Starkey replies, ‘If you take what I do as a model, in that model there is a consistent subject – women – and around it are my explorations into the nature of photography and the languages of photography…There is no one definitive approach to this. It’s an organic enquiry.’ Two pictures in this collection take up the theme of two women who are together alone in their mutually ambiguous awareness of the other.

 


Hannah Starkey, Untitled, January 2001

Courtesy, the artist

 

Untitled, January 2001 displays, wonderfully, a spectacle of mirrors within mirrors and photography within a photograph. The glare of two neon tubes both obscures and illuminates a frieze of black and white headshots. This dense lineup of idealized male forms separates the central woman, caryatid-like, from the surprisingly surreal mountain landscape beyond. The long mirror behind this woman reflects the back of her head to our left and another woman – in complimentary red jumper with complimentary blonde hair – inspecting her nails to the right. Cords from the neon lights run to the sockets below; they parody the majestic scene of the snowy wilderness, suggestively framing the central figure in a mock pyramidal composition. Her sideways glance implies an awareness of the other woman, as it were, and obliquely involves the viewer in an inconclusive frame tale further suggested by the archway at the extreme right of the oblong mirror. The mirror showing the public space beyond, the reflection of the figure the right, the angle of the image displacing the central figure’s reflection to the left, and the same figure’s loosely interlaced fingers drawing attention to the vinyl barrier cutting across the bottom of the picture plane cannot help but call to mind Eduard Manet’s 1882 Bar at the Folies Bergeres. Yet, Manet’s space is known, named and economically articulated with all its idiosyncrasies and instances of watching and being watched, the glassy-eyed barmaid’s tired lack of focus acting as foil for the viewer’s scrutiny. In Starkey’s image, the figures are in a place which is at once so endowed with quirky specificity and so ambiguous as to deny our readings and interpretations at every turn, increasingly concentrating the lack of logic by magnifying it through irrational spaces.

 


Hannah Starkey, Untitled, August 2006

Courtesy, the artist

 

Costello’s only reference to the possible meanings of architecture in the artist’s work is an observation that in one of Starkey’s images the subject appears to be the ‘victim’ or ‘captive’ of her architectural surroundings. This is certainly the case with a picture in the Mead exhibition that presents us with two women seated along pairs of sleek black leather executive office furnishings supported by curved chrome feet, reflected (reflection is a constant theme in Starkey’s imagery) in the polished marble floor and walls of this otherwise ostensibly empty and oppressively minimalist environment. Compositionally, there is a rhythm in Untitled, August 2006 initiated through the pattern of figures on furnishings; a flow is established which abruptly stops with the hard stare of the woman on the right. The woman on the left is turned away from us, reading a section of the Financial Times with the same peach tone as the walls of this anonymous and alienating lobby. On the right side of the image, a woman in a black suit and knotted silk scarf directs her gaze towards an indistinctly reflective surface of the stone floor, hands primly folded in her lap. She is wearing a nametag, and her presumed occupation is somehow related to the building – perhaps its night receptionist – as in front of her on the table is an array of flowers on the brink of unpleasant decay.

These lush, fragrant lilies and gladioli spill over the boundary of the table, unlike the neat business journalism of her counterpart to the left. Disordered, they are uncontained by the flimsy blue plastic bag common to off licenses and convenience stores the world over, and it is this vibrant blue instance of the ugly and the everyday – the world outside this sterile moneyed transient place – that signals to the viewer that these flowers are left over from former glory, no longer suitable for the opulence of this architectural site and bound for a more intimate and therefore perhaps incongruous setting. It is these stories of difference, ambiguity and melancholy that combine to establish a thick and curious atmosphere in the Mead Gallery. Even when in clusters, perhaps in relationship, or in dress that seems to unite and engage, Starkey’s images of women are consistently images of women isolated unstable, transitional or uncertain spaces. Architectural placement has both formal and conceptual implications, and it is absolutely clear that throughout the twenty-nine images in this exhibition, Starkey is confidently and carefully manipulating them. The architecture surrounds, envelops, frames, displays and responds, but it does not in any instance protect, comfort or resolve. It is, finally, this uneasy interplay between the invisible and the visible, and between interior and exterior worlds, which gives Hannah Starkey’s project a compelling richness.

 


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Ayla Lepine is a Visiting Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art and Warwick University, where she teaches courses on Victorian art and architecture. Ayla is currently investigating new ways of interpreting space and the body through material culture. She is also a freelance speaker, writer and researcher. Visit Ayla’s blog (www.heartchitecture.wordpress.com) or follow her on Twitter @heartchitecture.

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