A review of Colin Gray's exhibition at Street Level Photoworks
I don’t go to private views to see the art—they are noisy, busy, and not very private—but I like to attend them in order to take in the energy the work creates in the room and the impression it makes on people. I was not aware of Colin Gray before but everyone I spoke to about his photographs in the most reverential terms. They particularly admired his intimate family portraits and it was these that I was drawn to when I returned to Street Level Photoworks on a quiet Wednesday afternoon.
There are four series of photos that make up the show: Liminal, Do Us Part, Caught Between, and Terms and Conditions. At the opening, I was struck by how different each series looked: with photography, more than other media, there is an expectation of aesthetic unity. Think of Richard Avedon’s portraits or Alan Dimmick using the same camera for forty years. In this show, the common purpose is thematic rather than formal and the theme is mortality.
I was immediately drawn to the picture of an old man—we only see the back of his head, his grey hair—staring at the black back of a mirror. As Saul Bellow wrote in Humboldt’s Gift: “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” Only the finality of death allows us to appreciate life. This old man is Colin Gray’s father and this colour portrait forms the full stop in the series of ghostly black and white images titled Liminal. In the other photos, the figures are blurred and ethereal. A black curtain is shown to be set up for the purpose of being a backdrop with the studio behind. It’s all a construct. Even the photographs are hung with simple studs—unframed—damaging the paper, as if to emphasise the temporariness of everything in life.
In the middle of the room is a display case with Gray’s books from the last thirty years. The photographs of his parents from the 90s and 00s are full of colour. These staged scenes have a huge emotional range, from surreal laughter to mordant loss. Gray’s parents appear comfortable and generous as they play their parts, even in death in the case of his mother.
In Gray’s work, there is intimacy without any invasiveness. When his father was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and given six months to live, the camera was there because it always had been there. Do Us Part, from 2013, begins with another portrait of backs. In this case, it is three people: the father, the artist, and the son. The arms of the middle-aged man wrapped around the shrinking old man and the growing young one. As each new generation is born you are being shunted along, aware of your place in the mortal hierarchy. The series ends with ashes and barely recognisable images from a degraded, out-of-date Polaroid film. How else to express that the father is really gone?
Caught Between, the series that gives the show its overall title, refers to Gray’s time in intensive care when he almost died himself. Sparks of light, flashes of electrical energy, are layered over colourful backgrounds. The images feel experimental, not only in comparison with his other work, but because they are reminiscent of a light show from the 1960s, like Andy Warhol projecting images over the Velvet Underground. It is interesting to compare the photographer’s self-portraits to his portraits of others: there is an evasiveness here that is startlingly different from the rawness of the photographs of his father.
The final part, Terms and Conditions, brings Gray face-to-face with his son, wrapped around the supporting gallery pillar. After coming so close to death, you sense the artist is letting go of his ego and dissolving his consciousness into the landscape. A fork in the road, a grave-sized hole in the ground, barbed wire. The symbolism is clear without feeling heavy-handed.
One image feels out of place in this room, a simple photo of the artist hugging his father in a gallery, this gallery. It doesn’t quite sit with any of the other works but has a candid quality that helps contextualise the others. Art can elevate the mind and expand the perceptions, but life rests on the foundation of a child embracing a parent. This moment is difficult to appreciate amidst the social clamour of a private view. It is deeply affecting when you can walk around the gallery alone.
Caught Between by Colin Gray is at Street Level Photoworks until 23 April 2023.