Visual Ambiguity: the photographs of Stuart Bailes

Stuart Bailes, Recovery 001, 2011, Gelatin silver print

I like to be awakened by dawn creeping in to the bedroom. I particularly like early morning sunshine waking me up, and there has been sadly little of that in recent weeks. But today at six am, the suns rays were all ablaze in North Leeds and it was great weather for a dog walk.

But there were some odd visual effects as a result of the sunshine on the rain-soaked grass in the park. I was confronted by mirages at every turn: mirages of water and tarmac and water where I expected to see tarmac and tarmac where I anticipated water. It assumed the quality of a tantalising puzzle, and I was reminded forcefully of how much the human brain loves puzzles and spatial and visual trickery.

Successful art for me often has this quality. I posted last year about a fascinating art exhibition in Paris on this very broad topic and if I weren’t tapping this out on my mobile and frustrated by intermittent ‘connectivity’ issues, I would post the link to it. Then there’s the contemplative and intriguing light installation art of David Johnson.

And most recently, Johnson’s work was called to mind in one of those odd subconscious-free-association ways when I was visiting a show currently on at Edel Assamti’s new space in Victoria.

The exhibition is of photographic work by Stuart Bailes, a photographer who clearly takes the art potential of the medium seriously. In this glorious age of wonderful Instagram and Hipstamatic where we can all achieve satisfying aesthetic miracles with the tap of an app, I feel relief there there are still photographers/artists out there giving a great deal more thought to the real art of photographic process and execution.

Apart from the crisp perfection of the presentation of the works, the aspect I found most intriguing was the visual and spatial ambiguity of his photography, contained within a satisfyingly simple monochromatic aesthetic. Nothing is overloaded; nothing is forced, and yet you are compelled to stop and look. Really look.

On entering the space, you encounter a series of gelatin silver prints, Recovery. A series of lit linear marks, but are they glimpsed through or lying on a surface? Why should it matter to the brain to want to determine this? The works are all beautifully composed, and I think this is essential to encouraging a lingering visual analysis by the viewer. The eye can rest easy within the space of the image even if the mind is working overtime to puzzle it all out.

I was interested afterwards to read Bailes’ observation that his work is about decision making, in the sense of making a decision whether to understand or not to understand. I think that this somewhat enigmatic comment perfectly sums up the work.

The show is on until 2 June 2012


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