December 2, 2023

The World is Still Big – Alex Hartley Photographs

Large scale, (approximately 90 cm x 100 cm) colored photographs fill the Victoria Miro Gallery in Islington, North London. Seen together, the earthy vistas suggest a narrative of an un-peopled universe, but also include evidence of human intervention. The geography represented depicts arctic terrain, muddy jungle rivers, mossy, green woodlands and arid, desert spaces. All seem desolate.


The quality of the photographic prints seems rather ordinary. There is nothing special about the camera lens and the prints are a bit washed out. However, upon close examination, the eye detects elements of collage to the surfaces and it is these sections of low relief that add depth and intrigue. The colors match perfectly with the photo’s base colors and, most remarkable to this viewer, is the fact that the three dimensional elements are crafted meticulously and in perfect scale to the two dimensional areas around them. For example in, “Clearing,” a constructed boat is sun bleached white to match the sand in the photo and the small sticks adhered to the surface are identical to the flat, painted ones. The sense that the boat could be a human shelter is reinforced by its up-right position as it rests along the shoreline. A second smaller boat, propped up too, has a door.


In, “I want to be Somewhere,” a 3D house resembling a futuristic space ship sits on the edge of a crystal clear pool resting in the shadow of a frozen mountain cliff. The atmosphere captures so well a conflicting mood of belonging and isolation that is present in all the works.


All the photographs in the show include a shelter of some kind. In the piece, “I am Tired of Traveling,” there is a simple tent, like one created by a child’s play of throwing a blanket over a clothes line. The tent in the picture is made of fabric with a plaster coating and also has a rain shield. A small rock is painted over the corner of the tent where it meets the ground and lines of tension create a trompe l’oeil effect, lending the appearance of structural support. There is also a collaged fire pit, perfectly charred to look recently expired. Such attention to detail makes me wonder, did the artist spend the night here?


In fact, for the duration of this show, the artist is living behind the gallery in a ramshackle dome similar to the “eco domes” made famous by a group of Colorado hippies in the 1960s. It sits on a small pond and is made of old windows and other cast away materials. There is a pile of wood on it and the artist is keeping himself warm with a stove. You can smell the wood burning in the air.


According to his website, Alex Hartley’s work is “an investigation of modern architecture and the ways in which it is conceived and presented.” We are likely to hear much more about Mr. Hartley in the near future as he has been awarded the Artists Taking the Lead, 2012 Cultural Olympiad project for the South West of England. It is titled nowhereisland.


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