paul knight

untitled portrait (as proposition)
Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne
6 – 28 June 2003

Paul Knight’s photographic installation Untitled Portrait (as proposition) at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, used the upstairs studio space in an inspired way. By constructing an artificial partition near the entrance, Knight confronted the spectator with an unexpected division, forcing close proximity to the photograph. His large print dominated the artificial wall, leaving the rest of the room empty, except for the stenciled message: ‘a few small words amongst something vast’. These words could be read in an ironic way, since the space was far from expansive. Nevertheless, the message would be easy to overlook, sitting unobtrusively amid a white void.

The photographic print itself depicts a series of barriers—a wooden planter box containing an abundant ivy hedge which stands out vividly against a timber paling fence. The area between the top of the fence and the ceiling appears as a kind of optical illusion leading the eye to the implied space beyond. The space behind the fake wall in the gallery mimics the trajectory of the photograph, only we discover words on the other side rather than a dreary concrete zone we expect to see, effectively confusing the distinction between inside and outside.

At first, the boxed garden seems an innocuous subject, so familiar as to be beneath notice, but intriguing details reveal themselves gradually. The garden appears to be out of place in this indeterminate location, a failed attempt to soften the barren surroundings. The shoots of ivy which have inched their way up the wall behind have been poisoned as a way of restricting its growth. While decorative, the plant is not allowed to overreach its designated location as this would constitute a kind of trespass within a strictly delineated cityscape. Snail trails glisten on the wooden surface suggesting that insects appreciate the greenery even if most people do not (the photographer excepted). The pavement in front of the hedge is also marked with other tracks of traversal, indicating a perpetual flow of movement. We imagine the photographer as one of these passers-by, snapping the shot in a seemingly accidental encounter, even though in reality the process is much more laborious.

Knight’s photographs of mirrored sex-venues, illusionistic murals and trompe l’oeils also register a fascination with false perspectives, allowing glimpses of other worlds. By pointing his camera at these interstitial locations, he directs our attention to things we normally would not look at twice. Many of his works feature representations of fertile abundance in sterile settings, placed there in a vain attempt to suggest restfulness: most notable of these is terrarium (Paris), an image of an indoor jungle within a French mall, hemmed in by glass architecture on all sides and lit by blue and pink overhead spotlights. Similarly, in Hospital Trompe L’oeil, a Tuscan pastoral scene sits above a hospital bed in a curtained cubicle. As these works suggest, greenery is often used to ameliorate our environment, often at the expense of the plants themselves. After all, casualties of neglect can be seen everywhere—indoor plants are frequently acquired as well intentioned efforts to improve human conditions or as décor accessories, without any commitment to their care. The are pruned within an inch of their lives and poisoned by the toxicity of our emissions. In Untitled Portrait (as proposition), the plant is the central focus of the viewer’s gaze yet it also causes us to reflect on the people who have manipulated it. As with Knight’s other images of caged foliage, this photograph exhibits an extremely controlled scene and it is the banality of this human-made order that is most disturbing.