Karin Preller Snapshots 2007 | Art.co.za | Art in South Africa
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Snapshots 2007 | Gordart Gallery Johannesburg

A snapshot at once confirms and disrupts the narrative of which it forever remains only a relic and a fragment. My work deals with the relationship between painting, photography and memory, mainly through the prism of family snapshots of the 1960s and 1970s, and of colleagues and friends at dinner and cocktail parties - captured over and over again.

Family photographs, while seemingly mere recordings of events in a family’s history, ultimately operate in the same way as other representations. In the representation of the seemingly banal, the lack of the staging of anything overtly dramatic, they blank out what is not represented and, in so doing, perpetuate myths about what is represented. In this sense they are always about the family ‘romance’ and not about actualities. Meaning (and memory), in other words, lies also outside the frame. The narrative, as soon as it is staged, is interrupted, stunted - in this instance both by the photograph as fragment and by the way in which the photographs have been deliberately cropped, amputating limbs and faces.

Lisa Allan (2006) on Preller’s work:

Preller’s paintings comprise details taken from what we assume to be larger, more coherent images which utilize the device of synechdoche through which the viewer can complete the whole. But perhaps this is where the viewer is caught in a bind on two counts. The one being that completeness cannot be achieved because the act of visualizing the absent part of the image - the whole image as it were – may well be inaccurate in terms of a fidelity to the actual photographs the image is taken from. This is not necessarily important except where it leaves us wondering as to our imaginative completion - which leads to the second part of the bind which is perhaps the unrequited yearning for the completeness and closure that painting traditionally offers the viewer.

That closure or ‘window on the world’ is further disrupted by the spaces between the images arranged in the grid format, a direct reference to the illusion of Preller’s realism, and try as we might we cannot put the whole back together. This echoes the frustration and anxiety of memory, of the loss of recognisability, the absence of a concrete presence which we expect - against our better knowledge - a photograph to recall.

There is perhaps also a darker side to the loss intimated by the cropped images, that is the amputation - literally and psychologically - of heads, arms and bodies. The figures are incomplete, memory is stunted. The images focus in on details but even there, there is the reference to the unreliability of memory in the form of the contrast between the blurriness, almost abstracted quality of some of the detail, and the sharp relief of the crisper, more solitary and isolated objects. Preller’s surfaces are both extremely precise and almost indistinct. The surfaces of the paintings are concerned with materiality but allude to a sense of the transience of the moment which the camera always tries to hold still forever but which the painting reveals to be a chimera. The sadness of this transience lies not only in the debris of the dinner party, the half empty glasses, the candles, the flowers, the knowledge that the evening will end, but in how the objects are painted. We cannot quite fix them, they blur slightly into one another.

Of course Preller’s work is not entirely hostile to narrative because of the realism, but it does disrupt coherent narrative, it has no center. The edges of the picture planes constrain the images but disallow seamless narrative and this disavowal of narrative is reinforced by the use of the grid in the smaller black and white paintings. A further disruption of narrative lies in the distinction between the works and their titles. Some titles refer to specific names and places, the meaning of which only the artist is privy to. The relationship of the act of naming and identifying the images is severed right from the start. Here it is not only visual amputation that operates but narrative amputation as well.

Of specific relevance is the way in which loss and absence may be given visual form. The cropped images and surface qualities of a particular kind of photo-based painting provide a site for accentuating the contingency of the photographic image while at the same time, through the effect of painting, suspending the “death-bearing moment of a photograph”. In other words, it is through the effects of human labour on a flat surface that memory and forgetting, and the trauma associated with certain images, may be given visual form. The unreliability and anxiety of memory - the implied absence and loss inherent in every photograph - are ironically also enhanced by the inversion of the photograph into paint. An ambiguous temporality is set in motion which opens a space for the projection of memory and the transience of the moment.

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