What, where, here, not here, Peter Ireland

Peter Peryer Photographer 
Peter Peryer (photographs); Peter Simpson and Peter Peryer (essays)
Auckland University Press, $59.99, 
ISBN 9781869494178

Room Room
Ann Shelton (photographs); Martin Patrick (essay)
City Gallery in association with McNamara Gallery, $7.00,
ISBN 0958270465

Acerbic old Degas once said that anyone can have talent when he is five and 20; the thing is to have talent when you are 50. Peter Peryer’s well past 50 – he’ll be 70 in a couple of years – but the principle applies even more appositely. The world seems awash with 25-year-old talent, a fizzing mix of youthful energy, celebrity ambition, tabloid need and auction-house lust.

Peryer’s images poke into the champagne-like effervescence as rods do into a nuclear reactor – sharp reminders of stability in a maelstrom milieu, doing what enduring images have always done: acting as anchoring referents rather than exciting points of departure.

That “youthful energy” may be tautology. One term does tend to imply the other. Which is possibly why most artists do their most lively work between the ages of 20 and 35. In the old days, plague, famine and ingestion of cadmium and lead did many in by then anyway. Now, for those beyond 35, the bleak prospect stretches from teaching, writing essays for auction-house catalogues to serving on a Wallace jury. Shear away the hype, the inflated reputations and other efflorescences of an uncritical culture and we’re left with a tiny handful of artists over that age whose work continues to chart new territory and assume a truly critical mass. Try it: start counting and you’re left with a lot of fingers.

Peryer is perhaps the only photographer born in the 1940s to survive this very acid test – with the possible exception of Rhondda Bosworth. The world’s not here to luvya, baby. Whoever it was who said “If you find yourself resting on your laurels, you’re wearing them in the wrong place”, can’t have been thinking of this photographer.

Peryer has always had a “reputation”, ever since he burst onto the small photographic scene of the mid-1970s with those darkly expressive images that simultaneously flirted with pictorialist values and cocked a snook at the moral earnestness of the reigning documentary mode. His playful use of a plastic Diana camera only added salt to the wound. But once he latched on to the stylistic potential of new objectivity around 1980 he’s never looked back.

Peryer, though, has never let his reputation get in the way of his ambition. His focus has always been on the work, and this new compilation of his images sharply demonstrates this single-mindedness as well as reaffirming his continuing investigation of the special potency of single objects – especially their perceptual strangeness in isolation and stillness – undermining common assumptions about what’s real.

This isolating emphasises their presence as a prelude to the viewer sorting out what’s what, and even when we know, for instance, that Isabella’s only a doll or the sweater-wearing dog’s only a statue, the images still don’t lose any of their mystery.

The 80 plates are weighted towards more recent images as an updating of his published work, and constitute what writer Peter Simpson calls a tour of Peryerland in his comprehensive account of the photographer’s history, influences, sources and themes. It’s an elegant frame for the images and is, perhaps, the most informative and readable text on Peryer yet.

If Simpson’s the teacher, Peryer is the tour guide. His own essay traces his life before becoming an artist in the simple, direct and engaging style of his blog. There’s an equivalence with the images, rendering the piece a perfect fit. This relentless poet of scale is a fine writer too. Two minor points though: Aquinas Hall was designed by Ted McCoy, not Miles Warren, and Shustak’s first name was Larence, not Laurence.

Writing in the New Yorker (22 September 2008)) about the Morandi show at the Met, its art critic Peter Schjeldahl said, “The ambiguity of ‘size or location’ is key to Morandi’s indelible modernity. It’s as if he had set out, time and again, to nail down the whatness of his objects but couldn’t get beyond the preliminary matter of their whereness.” Swap that whatness with whereness and you get Peryer’s practice in a nutshell.

If Peryer’s work is about presence, Ann Shelton’s most recent photographic project is about absence. Commissioned to work within the abandoned residential treatment centre for drug and alcohol dependency on Rotorua Island in the Hauraki Gulf, the photographer produced a sequence of 21 circular images depicting largely empty bedrooms, which was shown through September 2008 in Wellington, with a selection later in Wanganui. This 32-page publication is the fully illustrated catalogue.

It’s becoming a feature of artist profile maintenance to commission essays for such publications. There’s a style of institutional academic writing abroad that’s contextual rather than critical, informed rather than erudite, plausible rather than enlightening. The literary equivalent of the bean-bag chair: malleable for your comfort, assuming any position you like to take, more likely to put the mind in neutral than move it into top gear.  The fact that the author in this case is the coordinator of studies at the Massey art school is not a cause for hope.

Shelton’s an artist whose recent projects have shown that form is a key part of the work. The paired, mirror images of sometimes freighted sites – such as the former mental asylum at Seacliff or the location of the Parker/Hulme murder in Christchurch’s Victoria Park – seems a simple device, but it allows for a visual parallel of the back-to-front values commemorated in depictions of such scenes of misery and violence.

She further underscores the fragility of social value systems and anchoring perceptions by never making clear which, consistently to the left or right of the pairing, the actual view is. Is Alice through the looking glass or isn’t she? This formal inventiveness gives rise to the idea that if Man Ray produced the Rayogram, in her rescrambling of plain facts into such potent inversions, Shelton could be said to have invented Annograms.

Photography, like smoke, has a peculiar relationship with mirrors. In the Rotorua work Shelton ratchets up the notion of mirror image another notch. The circular format looks like an actual mirror, and slightly convex at that. The warping of perceptions exactly parallels the experience of drug takers of course, and the closed circles of the images suggest the treadmill of dependency, showing again the photographer’s skill at settling on the eloquent form.

Those viewers trapped within subject-matter interpretations of photographs might complain – as they do with Aberhart’s work – that such images are “empty”. Oh, yawn. The photographs may lack staffage but the patina of human experience is palpable, a perception which the distraction of portraiture would surely diffuse.

These abandoned rooms may be “empty” but emptiness is the photographer’s subject and it’s more to do with lives than rooms. Her images, rather, are full to overflowing with a sense of abandonment, waste, anonymity and an unbearable joylessness that eats through your ribcage.

The title Room Room deftly mirrors the chillingly institutional nature of these spaces in what was called the Phoenix block at Rotorua. What rises from Shelton’s project is an austere beauty that doesn’t deny, compromise or even ennoble the nature of the facility’s former purpose. The circular format references the vignetting of early photographic practice without the blurring at the edge which gives those images an intimacy and poignancy.

Not much room for that in rehab. The roundness suggests a keyhole view too, the helper spying on the helped, that subtle institutional exercise of power defining who’s who. Shelton’s trick is to reverse this process. These rooms are now spying on us.


Peter Ireland is a Wanganui reviewer. 


Peter Peryer Photographer was shortlisted in the illustrative category of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.


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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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