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George Schwarz’s work is moving progressively towards three-edimensional assemblage and in this recent exhibition his characteristic photographic work sometimes seems like a kind of sub-plot to the major theme. A few of the ‘relics’ in this current show are photgraphic. Foor example there are a pair of small human skulls that lie side by side facing one another on crumpled blue textile, for all the world like two children engaged in pillow talk. There are at least two images of a wonderful old warehouse alongside the canal in Alexandria. This enourmous structure with the skeleton of its walls laid bare at one end went out of existence just a few days after its obituary photography was taken for this exhibition.
These photographs are mostly of sjy, pale slate-blue sky against which the relics are mounted; here rows of dry wish-bones, there an ibis skull or a smaller bird’s bony head pointing downwards with a short like of vertebral drums in a column above them. There is the carcass of skin of what was once a handsome lizard swimming across a moonstone coloured sky, looked at through a small brown marquetry frame.
A couple of the relics bring to mind the asphaltic texture of ancient embalming or bodies recovered from a bog. There is a immature chick resting peacefully in its tarry coating. In one more striking works an energetic soot-grey lorikeet plummets out of a golden sky like a Stuka dive-bomber. At “ground-level” we see photographic images of symmetrical building facades, low dunes or rock shelves by the cost, or the windshaped trees of Centennial Park captured in the brown to gold light that has been one of George Schwarz’s hallmarks since he first started making picutres.
The exhibition notes bear the names of both George and Charis Schwarz – the assemblage work being a cooperative effort between the two. The assemblage or collage artisit must be a constant and canny collector. One of the immediate effects of browsing in this exhibition is the way it sharpens one’s eyes for the striking of evocative accidental event. I grew up in an environment of artistic opportunism of this sort, since my step-father, Eric Thake, combined an interest in natural history with his career as painter and wood-cut artist and one of his most famous images was of the dried puffer fish that hung on a hook of wire in our outdoor lavatory while another was of a twisted, dancing lizard that, like George’s had probably been martyred under a car or truck, “broken on the wheel” in another sense.
Looking at this exhibtion has made me aware that we could use an alternative term to “assemblage”. We need something that is less academic and mechanical, more human and poetic. We need something that captures the stange memorial and emotional atmosphere of this sort of enterprise. Furthermore in this particual case “assemblage” discounts the great amount of darkroom work that lies behind the exhibition, generating scores and scores of prints varying in contrast, scale, in warmth and coolness.
Since I am an admirer of George Schwarz’s photographic prints I have mixed feelings about the ascendancy of the object and the move from photographic collage to assemblage; there is a risk that the images will be swamped by the objects and also by the paly of light on them and on the clear plastic surfaces behind which they are mounted. George’s view is that anyone who acquires on of these works will presumably have ample time to penetrate these “distractions” if they want to admire the photography itself.
The assemblages come in uniform format: in every case a relatively deep rectangular frame surrounds a mount covered in copper leaf. This in turn surrounds a shallow acrylic dome, elliptical in shape, in which the assemblages are enclosed. In many cases a second flat sheet of acrylic lies directly over the photographic prints so that in an appropriate seeing there are multiple reflections as well as the shadows from the objects mounted in the frame. In the gallery an ibis head is so lighted that a that a deep oblique shadow of the skull falls below it producing a classical calligraphic silhouette. Multiple shadows falling under the flight of wishbones are again an essential part of the work. According to George, the inspiration for the format used throughout the exhibition goes back half a century to a memorial photograph of the wedding of his grandparents. It hung high on the wall in their farmhouse near Zurich. Because the artist feels somewhat out of tune with the normal (and I must say not unreasonable) expectation that he will name and sign each image he has simply omitted all titles and engraved the year, 1994, and an imprint of his signature on a pair of egg-sized medallions to either side of the larger oval window in the mount so they become like relics themselves.