Robyn Stacey Presents
Mori Gallery, Sydney October 8-26, 1985
Photofile, Autumn 1986 page 30
Robyn Stacey’s photography has always been concerned with self-perception of self-image. Her handcoloured portraits portray an individual’s sense of their own special character as they present it to her camera.
Her first one person exhibition, held at The Australian Centre for Photography in 1983, approached this problem in a more casual, informal and ‘documentary’ manner than her recent show at Mori Gallery. For her first exhibition she photographed a range of social types, from topless barmaids to Aborigines, to Punks and Rockers. The portraits were generally taken in their subject’s ‘natural’ environments, then enlarged and delicately handcoloured with colour pencils. In this first exhibition, as in the second, her subjects confidently posed for their portraits. However, this self-contained display of self-image generally took place within a particular social environment. All of her subjects were immediately inscribed within a specific social relationship.
This often contradictory interaction between a self contained personality and the surrounding social landscape gave the images a poignant, bitter-sweet accent, as self-image played off social position. For instance in the Queensland Out West series, purchased by the Australian National Gallery, there is a memorable image of three Aboriginal youths clowning for the camera. One proudly wears a tee-shirt bearing the tragically ironic words ‘Shaddup You Face’, from the mock-Italian pop song of the time. In another series of photographs, purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a punk father tenderly plays with his baby, who sports a mohawk haircut almost as impressive as his dad’s.
Robyn Stacey, Body and Soul I, 1985 colour print
Stacey’s sensitive handcolouring, with the fibres of her pencil strokes just breaking through the photographic surface, added to the emotive power of these images. Their immediate charm may lie in the fact that they fall safely into a long photographic tradition — the documentation of social and cultural phenomena in which the photographer acts as a hyper-sensitized reporter, sending poetic dispatches back from the periphery of society. This tradition has
been celebrated since Robert Frank, at least.
In her latest exhibition, subtitled Well Known Unknowns, Stacey confidently steps out of this tradition and onto the slippery, constantly sliding surface of mediatized imagery and personalised fantasy. In these portraits she retreats from a particular social environment into the non-specific cultural potentiality of the studio. Her subject’s self-perception of self-image becomes the therapeutic acting out of an inner fantasy. Character collapses into characterization as she photographs her friends as mermaids, devils, boxers and Film Noir heroes. She becomes complicit in their manifest imaginings. Quite another photographic tradition is being reinterpreted now, the tradition of the studio portrait, the
glamour photograph, and the fashion spread.
In the sense in which fantasy is important to us all, these image still function as portraits of ‘real’ people. However, Stacey does not sink into that well worn mode of portraiture in which fantasy is used to describe an interior ‘psychological’ space. These portraits are dislodged from a particular psychological reality, as well as a particular social or cultural environment. They freely float across a thoroughly mediatized field made up of an array of conno-tatively redolent costumes, props, colourful cutouts and dappling projections.
Her images have a disarmingly eccentric, 2D feel. Even the picture surface itself seems to participate in this retreat from the specific and the real. Some of the images, for instance Fantasy at 20,000 Fathoms, axe hand-coloured photographs that have been copied onto colour film; others, such as Water Baby, axe copied 20 x 24 inch Polaroids. These techniques give the photographs a sort of elusive non-presence which oscillates between two kinds of materiality: neither photographic nor graphic, neither true not false, both handcrafted object and technological product.
The referent of these images is no longer a particular personality, rather it becomes popular culture as personal possession. Stacey’s photographs are portraits of chimeric individualities constructed from the dislocated fragments of lovingly remembered postcards, posters, cartoons, films, videos, toys and art works — all the things that comprise Western popular culture.
However, these images are not a commentary on pop culture, they are not reducible to the kitsch or the camp, or even to the second degree. They are to be believed in, Body and Soul. They have been made as serious and well meant additions to the field of mediatized imagery. Ultimately, they are more than just the fun and games of a particular inner city milieu. As portraits they function as images of a personal disavowal. Liberal-humanist notions of cultural and social determinancy are repudiated, and a global regime of univalent, non-denotational imagery is embraced.
However, in this delightful oscillation between personality and image there remains a Taste of Terror which finally gives these images their edge: these images so cunningly and wittily eschew the normal photographic referents of the ‘real’, the ‘psychological’ and the ‘commentary’, they are so self contained, yet so elusive, that they appear to be in danger of spinning Outta Sight all together.