Abstract Way

Colin Serjent
Unity Theatre (3rd February - 28th February 2009)

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

The photographs of Colin Serjent deal with the big issues of perception, transformation, dynamic and gradual change, man’s impact on his environment and the relationship between the elements.

The photographs are randomly hung and the viewing order doesn’t really matter because the effect is at once cumulative and discreet whichever order the works are approached. He has eliminated the human figure from his photographs and approached a degree of abstraction without eliminating the human effect. In a sense the human impact is emphasised – it casts a shadow but without giving the viewer the narrative clues the conceptual mind often craves. The abstraction forces the mind to work harder with its narrative obsession and it’s interesting to be forced into confronting this phenomenon in the face of ambiguity of image, context and scale. The most challenging photographs with regard to this are ‘But not That’ and ‘Skin Deep’ - both deliberately out of focus and both offering wide opportunities for interpretation. And listen to the mind saying ‘this but not that…that but not this…this but not that,’ - the point being that both of these enigmatic photographs address the theme of impermanence: of being and becoming and being and dissolution into something else or, because of the way the mind works, the non-duality of being one, both or all simultaneously. But what a relief for the analytical mind to conclude that ‘But not That’ is an aquarium scene. Isn’t it? So that’s all right then.

In ‘Fragments’ the mind is confused by the lack of contextual scale. Are these images paper peeling off a wall or torn pieces of the geological past? Is the setting aged, subterranean and gritty or modern, dark and squalid? In ‘Over Many Continents’ and ‘Rip Torn’ certain visual elements convince the eye of distance. This is more true of the former because of the titular reference to vast spaces. In the latter depth and perspective are created by the use of diagonals but the scale is uncertain. Something - paint, paper, bark? - has been torn back. It is the revelatory tearing open of the curtains one step on from ‘Surface Tension’ – a photograph mysterious in chocolaty browns, tense with the mystery of what lies beneath and reminiscent of that epic parcelling undertaken by Christo.

‘Nuance’ is a less indistinct piece giving a sense of the subtle relationship between the objective world and subjective perception. It contains shiny reflective surfaces in cool colours: liquid glass becoming the mystery of reflection. Is that a reflected face? Is this ice in an indistinct glass or ice resembling a glass?

In the exquisite ‘Melt’ we have an abstract study of water and earth – the liquid translucent silver blue of the water reinforced by the solidity of earthy, textured terracottta – evoking in its rust colour the transformative power of water to erode, dissolve, or indeed, melt. This is a theme also occurring in the blues and earth colours of the elemental ‘Metal Postcard’, whose message of rusting corrugated iron resembles an undulating shore, wetted by sea water and punctuated by spirals of windblown sand as well as representing the sharp edge of metal decay.

And we are never far away from the bedrock of our elemental world. A very touching study, ‘Figure it Out,’ in which shadows on cracked earth give form to the outing of a primitive figure, brings to mind the sculptor’s vision within stone or clay at the same time reminding us of the funereal ‘dust to dust’. ‘Another Brick’ has the colourist’s joy of a Terry Frost painting and celebrates the harmonious variety of earth’s geological striations combined with human practical skills. There is also the humorous invocation of popular culture - a nod in the direction of Pink Floyd’s bleak song but anyone feeling claustrophobic on this score should watch the clashing demolition of a large building (the one next to Lime Street Station, where the metallic spider once had its being). How soon the careful, precise erection of buildings is reversed by powerful force! And this is another theme examined by Colin Serjent. In photographs of residual debris – such as ‘Left Adrift,’ ‘Freedom to Roam’ and ‘Debris’ – the product of casual or deliberate human activity is transformed by the photographer’s eye into texturally and colourfully rich still life studies. All are well composed abstract pieces (the composition comes from the photographer’s eye in finding and framing the objets trouves rather than any manual intervention) using recycling - the superficial brashness and chance juxtaposition of surface clutter, the discarded accumulation of the capitalist society.

Fragmentation – the aftermath of powerful impact of one kind or another – has its other powerful yet homogeneous images in such pieces as ‘Bits and Pieces’ and ‘Chip off the Old Block'. Rather reminiscent of the analytical cubist studies of Braque, are these being presented as alternative ways of viewing a ship changed by extreme natural forces or a tree changed by the hand of man? For theatrical potency as an image of doer and deed ‘Left Adrift’ is a worthy example and one is reminded of the sense of beauty Otto Dix and Paul Nash found in the destructive force and chaos of war. The torn fabric looks like a bloody hand and echoes the imagery in ‘Nature’s Way’: a diptych that raises the question of man’s impact on nature. The left hand side of the photograph shows a clear linear depiction of tree bark, a sense of longevity in the concentric lines and then a knot where a branch has been hacked off. Although tree limbs sometimes fall naturally, more often than not this hacking is man’s way. The mood is different in the right hand side of the photograph. The (mind-revolved) images – a row of tree trunks growing? - are less distinct because whatever the mind imputes, they are shadows. Maybe. And the mood is more lyrical, elegiac even.

What one enjoys so much about these photographs is that they knock down walls and open up possibilities; they challenge complacency by removing comfort props and deal with the important issues by stealth. These quiet dramas are not so quiet, not so self-effacing as their placing in the theatre lounge area would indicate. Successive theatre goers will have the opportunity to see them but they deserve to be centre-stage.

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