Photography For The Contemporary Soul
The three large photographs on show at Madragoa, under the title For Laura, by Jaime Welsh, read like static camerawork scenes from a psychological drama. Featuring mid-century architecture and glossy interiors—Welsh says he often shoots inside governmental institutions and museums—the artist stages a lone young man evolving in an empty, highly designed, and spotless building. In the select photographs on show, initially presented by Welsh for his degree exhibition at Goldsmiths, an austere protagonist consistently appears in the middle ground, somehow mediated by glass and never looking directly at the camera. He is sometimes double, either because his likeness is reflected on a glass surface or because it was added post-shooting through digital manipulation. Symbolically, a reflected image could allude to a range of references including psychological explorations towards our inner self as a reflected psyche, but also the looming of our shadow side, the expression of a deep polarity, or the myth of Narcissus. It also could allude to loneliness and alienation—in these shots the isolation of the character is absolute. For instance, in For Laura (velvet) (all works 2021), Kevin Brennan—the artist’s model and friend, whose mother, Laura, is the one the show is dedicated to—is featured twice, as if cloned. He’s lit from above and seemingly working, microphones in place, in two simultaneous interpreter booths. The booths are set behind glass windows on the side of a dark conference room featuring rows of empty luxurious armchairs. We could imagine the possibility of a conference taking place, but, next to the character’s double-attendance, his lit space opposed to the dark foreground, emptiness only accentuates the desolation of the scene.
In For Laura (double) the young man doomly stares inside one of the interpreter booths from within the empty conference room, and his mirror image is reflected by the glass partitions. Is the character an employee of sorts or a proprietor? He lingers in the building like a disillusioned janitor, but is not dressed for it. We saw him occupy the simultaneous interpretation booths, but why would he be translating by himself? He waits, he ponders, it’s all up in the air—which seems to be the point. Welsh’s images are aesthetically weaponised by the elegant interiors. Their sophisticated composition and framing, filtered by polished lights and shadows, use location privilege as a seductive melodrama that draws our gaze in. But, once we are there, the audience is left to define its messages for themselves. While the style of the photographs is adjacent to the attractive modernity of architecture, design, and fashion photography, the fragmented narratives borrow from the manipulative strategies employed by a certain kind of cinematographers. And indeed, in the exhibition text, the artist says that he has always been fascinated by the minimalist yet refined and psychologically charged movie scenes staged by film directors such as Paolo Pasolini or Michael Haneke. And he certainly openly plays with the codes of film to create these peculiar moody atmospheres and a sense of bourgeois mystery.
But Welsh is also enamoured with the possibilities offered by photography as a medium. A seductive photography full of rooms—“like inside any camera lens,” he’s quoted saying in reference to the glasses and compartments making a camera—which attracts the viewers in, like an enigma with sombre cracks in the subject’s psyche. Welsh edits and constructs his images with an acute eye for details, from his classical choice of lights and filters and the character’s retro-now styling and fashion to the nearly catalogue-like compositions of the semi-public architecturally authoritative spaces of his stagings. We could imagine many narratives in this clinical but deluxe environment. But the full story line eludes us, as if slipping away on the shiny surfaces only to offer a handful of superficial clues on purpose.
In For Laura (slice), we see Brennan siting low on a minimalist brown leather sofa located at the intersection of two ground floor corridors framed on one side by floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The view reveals the lush greenery of what could be an interior patio. He is pensive, but in a way that could either come from looking at the scenery, like the romantics look at nature but with anxiety, or from an internal psychological turmoil. The young man’s transfixed stare has the aloofness of Anne Imhof’s endurance pieces' performers—a mix of misery, attitude, and tease that form a coping mechanism, a survival tool for a contemporary youth that is only marginally intrigued by the prospects of our modern world. His posture seems to indicate some kind of anticipation, albeit closer to a state of standing by than excitement. Perhaps this is the representation of a larger current state of mind: one that sees the state of the world as a struggle to find balance and hope, and where optimism is elusive enough to be replaced by control over appearances, solemn composure, and latent emotions.
Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art critic, curator and writer. She is a regular international contributor to art publications such as Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic, and other publications including the South China Morning Post. She was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong-based independent art magazine Pipeline that ran print editions form 2011 to 2016 where she curated thematic issues with artists, curators and other art contributors. She has a Masters degree in International Prospective from Paris V University. She is editor in chief of Curtain Magazine.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.