Is the artist in the house?

FRAN DIBBLE
Last updated 12:06 18/01/2013

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REVIEW: The Sophist's Mirror, an exhibition of ambrotype and tintype photographs by Ben Cauchi, runs at the City Gallery, Wellington, until February 17.

I'm a bit talked out on Ben Cauchi, even if I do enjoy his work.

He is an artist who has had a fairly full exhibition schedule, much of it centred on his home town of Masterton, and has been extending to Aratoi, in Masterton, at Te Manawa and now at City Gallery Wellington, until the middle of February.

Surprisingly, the giant upstairs gallery in Wellington may be the most recent and the biggest, but it isn't the best of his shows.

Some of it is just that such small works don't exhibit that well in these large, expansive spaces. These are photographs, mostly on glass and tin plates, instead of fixing images on paper, so are produced only at a certain, roughly A4 paper, size.

Walking around the exhibition, with the lights turned low, presumably for protection of the works, makes for a slightly dim and dull circling, with image upon image of the same size and colouring. A repetitive journey, it is almost Kafkaesque, like windows in endless straight walls (the artworks are often mounted with thick white frames that suggest window frames).

The images in the exhibition are also particularly stark - I have seen previous works with more frill and decoration - chosen to enhance this minimal platform. It's not my favourite way to view these works, which in domestic environments are so much more attractive.

As objects, they have the feeling of a cross between Victorian (we can imagine the seances, magicians and slight-of-hand charlatans) and a Dadaist happening.

Some of this comes from the technique itself, the wet-collodion process that is used is an oddly antiquated method for exploring contemporary photography, which creates grainy shadowy surfaces. But it is also hammed up with Cauchi's chosen subject matter - jackets with no-one in them, dark rooms with colonial skirting boards and door frames, faded wallpaper, white tablecloths stretched over old tables, the old-fashioned suits the artist himself uses when he includes himself in the frame.

This exhibition contains a lot of self-portraits, a peculiar presence with the artist no longer here, but residing in Berlin (an irony I suspect he would enjoy), and he plays the role of pseudo-philosopher well with glazed, open eyes and an incredible stillness, much of this also partly the result of the techniques, I suspect.

The images do suggest representations of an inner world. I don't mean indoors or interior, even if this is nearly always the case, with the depiction of still-life setups in rooms or photos of empty rooms, rarely venturing out into the landscape.

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It is more as if these are images right through on to our retinas, giving a sense of an inner mind.

They feel as if they are not real things, more like photographed dreams - their haze suggestive of old places - cobwebs, gloom and dust - things that are fundamentally part of the internal workings of man, rather than the world outside.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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