I love artists’ books. As an alternative forum for the presentation of new work or a retrospective survey, the artist book can offer a delicate interplay between the content, format and overall book context. The narrative that unfolds has the potential to become a significant conceptual layer in its own right, providing a spatial and contextual interplay. How and what can the forum of ‘the artist book’ add to the compiled images and/or words by providing insights into the work, through the narrative[s] it offers and the very nature of its materiality? The material outcome of a book has the potential to conceptually drive or unify the content of each page. This is, of course, dependent on the nature of the artist’s work, as to what can be enhanced, magnified, reinforced within this alternate format.
Janina Green’s Blush, published by M.33 and designed by Yanni Florence, presents a non-chronological suite of photographs spanning a 22-year period. The book provides the reader with a multitude of interpretations and narratives within narratives. This is due to the strength of the images and the restraint and sensitivity of the design.
Once upon a time
We are conditioned to expect a narrative of sorts when ‘reading’ a book. The artist’s book, as a forum, offers a multitude of variables in the approach to telling a story.
The non-chronological narrative of Blush is only revealed through the understated captions accompanying each image. We weave forward and backward through images that shift in genre and time, but not in sensibility. We see the same eye peering onto a disquieting and aesthetically lush, domestic world of interior longing and loneliness, portraits of wide-eyed innocence and optimism, yet fraught with all the apprehension and awkwardness of youth, and unpopulated landscapes that are hardly ‘empty’. The photographer is looking out and looking in.
Blush is a storybook of images that are plucked from an array of sources and time frames to read as a cohesive whole – much like the fragmented, non-linear repetition of still images that comprise a dream. Blush manifests a filmic illusion. Subtle links are made between reoccurring motifs and subject matter that enable open and multiple readings and association. Sensations of a stifling interiority of domestic and psychological terrain prevail. This ‘viscous’ landscape is made physical and palpable through the aesthetic treatment of the photographic print.
Most of the images presented in this monograph are analogue photographs, both in source and outcome. Green’s signature image: the hand-coloured, analogue photograph, embodies such a specific and direct materiality that each image runs the risk of being lost within the printed realm of a book. I believe that the images’ predominantly analogue base defies the potentially flattening mediation of the printing process. We can ‘feel’ the ‘velvety’ depth and density of ‘analogue black’ and the subtle topography of the paper, its delicate grain, and its memory once dry. I am not ashamed to admit a certain degree of nostalgia for this process as I was also once wholeheartedly immersed and in love with the ‘magic’ of wet photography. I still find this process to possess a powerful, material directness and depth.
And now we enter the material world of the memory of each page.
Even though the hand-coloured treatment may evoke a sense of past processes, or an era of time consuming ‘womens’ work’, this photographic treatment casts many of the images with a thick or viscous atmosphere, that is simultaneously seductive, beautiful and heavy – a sublime, palpable materiality. This material reality becomes a conceptual layer, or patina, to read through to the content; a woman’s world, fraught with the upkeep of a pleasant veneer, an underlying a social awkwardness and a ‘close’ air of suppression. I can almost smell the musty floral carpet, the rose perfume, and a quiet and stifling loneliness.
Any designer’s challenge would be to translate this material quality into the book in some way. Has this been lost in translation? Not to me. From the fabric bound cover, to the choice of dusty pink end papers, a consistent tactility and sensation permeates throughout this artist’s book. When we stop and consider the canons that determine a ‘good’ photographic image or stylistic movements that emerge and come to signify a distinct era of cultural production, I believe this suite of images transcends definitive categorisation, exuding a quiet and consistent emotional and aesthetic intelligence. These images are timeless and other worldly. I find this a refreshing antidote to the predominantly deadpan style of recent contemporary photography. I feel before I think.
Across genre, across style and across time, Green’s Blush presents a comprehensive approach and attitude to her medium.
A strong sense of ‘the feminine’ is imbued in Janina Green’s photography. This quality is inherent in the content and treatment of each image. We all know it when we see it, but what exactly does this mean? What is a feminine landscape? What is a feminine portrait? The treatment of images, as a labour of love, is laden with time-honoured, craft-based association. The emotionally sophisticated content, attention to detail and nuanced compositional cues are executed via a woman’s eyes. The artist has both observed and constructed the scene via identification and empathy.
Sophia Ahlberg’s essay (of the same title) follows the suite of images, almost as a full stop to an open and shifting sentence. Ahlberg’s essay becomes a vital (peripheral) catalyst for my interpretations and reflections on this body of work, without talking too directly to the images:
Disciplined into conventionally gendered forms and behaviour, women are dispossessed. In denial of their sexuality, women become estranged from themselves and others. This forced migration from self gives way to deep nostalgia.
The women portrayed in Blush carry a certain degree of anonymity, as if they are ‘stand ins’ for the sisterhood, in general. A distinct sense of loss, longing and loneliness ‘rises to the surface’ of their portrayal, in contrast to the sense of hope and wonderment in the adolescent girls’ wide and direct eyes. I began to wonder if nostalgia was not only the subject of these images, but also the motivation.
When we consider the period within which the compiled images were produced — the end of postmodernism to today’s ‘post medium’ condition — the prediction of the death of art and the author had to happen, only so that artists could stake their claim and defy this prediction, resuscitating themselves through ongoing redefinition. Janina Green hails from this generation, one that saw the rise of photography as one of post modernism’s most prominent vehicles or tools of expression. Green and other artists such as Micky Allen and Ruth Maddison, presented the capacity of the photograph to both redefine the ‘original’ and feminism through the expression of both a personal and collective socio-political voice.
Handcolouring…was seen then as being a feminist strategy that subverted the dominant pure print fetish of mainstream art photography and also, by extension, the one-dimensional realities with which photo-naturalism colluded. (Gael Newton , “The Movement of Women, Art and Australia”, Vol. 33, No 1, Spring 1995)
Janina Green’s voice carries a subtle, albeit powerful political commentary. This is expressed via a delicate balance between content, aesthetic and materiality.
Blush is beautiful. Janina Green melds the conceptual with the romantic very neatly in her practice. This signature aesthetic and material language transcends the images to the book itself, an object that embodies a powerful tactile sensibility. This sensibility, in turn, becomes a seductive device to mediate social content, not to mention a means to reveal highly informed references to art history, photographic and social theory. This narrative is open, ripe with possibility. Blush is a document of a prolific career, a personal archive of sorts and an art object in its own right.
JO SCICLUNA is a Melbourne-based artist. She explores the genre of landscape through her primary media of photography and space. Through this spatio-temporal practice, Scicluna investigates means of place making and marking, in order to reveal and magnify the mechanisms of place and to locate the eternally fluid definition of self.
Jo has exhibited locally and internationally in public, private and institutional spaces. Her art practice strongly informs her teaching practice. Jo has taught in art, photography and design throughout academic institutions in Melbourne and has recently co-founded The Other Side, a practice-led exhibition space, established as a forum of dialogue and exchange for creative practitioners.
Jo will be exhibiting work in When Our Horizons Meet at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne from the 28th March 2013.