Review: 'Double Take' at Skarstedt

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As a person who’s more drawn to paintings and sculptures, it's not often I find myself at a photography exhibition. During my time at Art College I was not unversed in the important use of the photographic medium, especially when it came to preparation for my own compositions, but that didn’t – and still doesn’t - stop me from being a little intimidated.

It’s a curious skill: the capturing of a singular moment, the manipulation of that which we have most likely seen many times before. It’s because of this that when photography is conducted with the appropriate amount of expertise, flair, and a little healthy scepticism, it can become intoxicating and transcendent. Take, for example, my recent trip to Skarstedt for their latest exhibition ‘Double Take’.

For me this was a first visit to their new home on Bennet Street. I was a fan of their old space at 23 Bond Street but, along with a number of other high profile galleries, it seems the quieter, less well-trodden paths of St James’s are more aligned with the gallery’s personality, away from the hustle and bustle of fashion’s super-brands. Anyway, I digress, the press release on my desk tells me the issue here is ‘Appropriation’.

Loosely defined as the borrowing and reproduction of pre-existing images, the theme of appropriation is common place among modern and contemporary art. It seems that the key exercise for many young and upcoming artists is to take what has undoubtedly been done before and either comment on or reproduce it. With over 7 billion people in the world right now, it’s understandably tough to do anything truly unique. But don’t let that depress you - this exhibition proves that there has always been real magic in the re-framing and re-contextualising of an existing composition.

Skarstedt has amassed nearly every sought after contemporary photographer in this highly ambitious exhibition. The list reads like a who’s who of the medium’s icons and upon first entering the space I’m a bit overwhelmed. Richard Prince’s Untitled (eyelashes) hits you immediately, especially as it lies, neatly juxtaposed, next to Louise Lawler’s Nude, 2002-2003. With Prince, we have high intensity focus, a delicate portrait that gives the viewer very little breathing space, while Lawler’s installation image of Gerhard Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase) gives us the complete opposite: space, background, time to discuss and dissect the effect of showing Richter on his side, perhaps abandoned.

Many of the artists on show can be attributed to the ‘Pictures Generation’. A prominent movement that came to the forefront of contemporary photography in the 70s and 80s in tandem with the rise of media-driven consumer culture. The artists took what was so readily available, removed them from their original context and gave the works an entirely different meaning. Take Hank Willis Thomas, a number of whose works are on display in this exhibition, who takes magazine advertisements and digitally strips back any logos and text, leaving us with the clear unadulterated truth of the image. In I depend on me a feminine hand delicately covers a more intimate section of the human body. With no bright banners, or tantalising text, instead the image evokes themes of intimidation, fear and crippling anxiety.

Large works by American editor and photographer Roe Ethridge are also on display. These colourful collages are a welcome addition to an exhibition primarily focused on singular subjects, and greatly appealed to my inner collage-maker. Pic n Clip 9 is an amalgamation of collected imagery with vast translucent American Spirit logos and superimposed labels. With a nod to Richard Prince’s own appropriated images of the Marlboro Man, Ethridge’s experiments with colour are tantalising. The compositions’ seem to parallel the pervasive social media trends of today. The colours, cropping and collage, for me, a comment on cheap ‘filter’ apps and Instagram’s own disappointing editing tools.

In a digital age that seems to be only getting more and more unsettling – take for example the recent announcement that the CIA can now hack any Samsung TV in the world – the world is becoming increasingly obsessed with the digital image. ‘Double Take’ provides a neat and chronological insight into the practices of the featured photographers and shows that their ability to challenge and question is relevant and necessary now more than ever. Not to be missed, the exhibition continues until 22nd April 2017.