Updated: May 19, 2020
You find yourself seduced by sunshine and beauty as you walk through Balboa Park’s palm tree lined walkways and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture on your way to San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Art (MOPA). As you turn into the museum you are greeted by a newly renovated entrance and exhibition space that is refreshingly contemporary while complimenting its historical home.
Standing in the entry it would be easy to veer left into a captivating interactive space, but four large scale photographs from Australian artist Michael Cook’s series Invasion draw you into to the main hall. Born of Aboriginal descent Cook’s polished images depict the shock that enveloped the Australian continent when European explorers appeared on Aboriginal shores. This is achieved by turning around the dominant view, taking alien creatures representing Aboriginals into iconic London-based cityscapes with white urban residents their victims as the sci-fi scaled animals wreak havoc within the city. This mix of aesthetically engaging technique combined with socio-cultural commentary is an apt introduction to Defining Place/Space: Contemporary Photography from Australia.
Pat Brassington, Duette, 2016, archival pigment print. © Pat Brassington, courtesy of the artist and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne.
A survey of contemporary Australian photography, the exhibition purposefully provides a broad range of insights into the country’s rich contemporary photographic dialog. For instance, Hoda Afshar’s photographs deal with representations of marginality, displacement, and intimate communities of those considered the other. Exhibited here are a series of photographs from Behold exploring the lives of a small group of gay men in Iran, where homosexuality is illegal. During an exhibition at MARS Gallery Hoda described the work as follows, “There, where they live, these men (and many others like them) are mostly left to be. But only on the condition that they lead one part of their lives in secret. Rarely, that is, do their bodies ever meet in open honesty outside, in public. Only here, in this bathhouse, where their desire to be seen and embraced by others – just to be and to be held – is played out the partial openness of these four closed walls.” Polixeni Papapetrou’s Eden is comprised of a series of portraits of young women that speak to the passing of time and the transition from the innocence of adolescence into adulthood. Pat Brassington’s surrealist influenced collages are drawn from an archive of her own photographs, and deal with ideas of instinct, innate urges, and the corporeal. As the artist notes, her images are positioned, “just off the verge of normality, into those dense patches where the commonplace goes awry". Rosemary Liang’s work is cinematic in its staging and capture. The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia characterized her work as follows, “ A vast majority of Laing's artworks relate strongly to cultural and historical places throughout Australia. With staged sceneries, Laing involves the politics of particular locations as well as elements of current and modern culture.”
Hoda Afshar, Untitled #5, 2016, digital photographic print. © Hoda Afshar, courtesy of the artist.
The exhibition is comprised of thirteen artists, several of whom are being exhibited in the United States for the first time. Artists include: Hoda Afshar, Polly Borland, Pat Brassington, Rosemary Laing, Polixeni Papapetrou, Trent Parke, Patrick Pound, Jacky Redgate, Justine Varga, Michael Cook, James Tylor, Tracey Moffatt and Ricky Maynard. The photographers were nominated by a team of five Australian curators of photography Julie Robinson, Art Gallery of South Australia; Susan Van Wyk, National Gallery of Victoria; Dr. Shaune Lakin, National Gallery of Australia; Gael Newton; and Judy Annear, with the finalists selected by MOPA’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, Deborah Klochko.
The nomination of four Aboriginal artists touches upon the Australia’s relationship with its indigenous population, and the manner in which the country’s history affects contemporary art-making. The result is a compelling collection of work that builds on the museum’s mission to engage audiences in a nuanced global conversation with specific attention to a broadly defined Pacific Rim.
Exhibitions such as this combined with MOPA’s educational outreach make the museum an important stop in Southern California’s burgeoning art scene.
Defining Place/Space: Contemporary Photography from Australia March 6, 2019 through September 22, 2019. www.MOPA.org
Review by Thomas Werner
Author of The Fashion Image, Bloomsbury Publishing
Editor At Large IRK Magazine, Paris