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White as snow, white as a sheet, white is purity, marriage, death, a blank page. Chris Handran’s ‘The white album’ shifts between these differing associations. At a glance each photograph seems icy and opaque, but move closer and exquisite flares of colour materialise and touch you. Ghostly shapes, released from light-filled paper, are delicately marbled together. At times, they are abstract, at others recognisable yet strangely otherworldly.
There is something intimate about these works, a sense heightened by the large album in the centre of the gallery that invites you to touch and turn its unwieldy pages, searching for veiled colour. This intimacy is mixed with a kind of inaccessibility. The enormous scale of the album overwhelms; light on the plastic protectors obscures the marks on the paper, forcing the viewer to search hard.
Like a scientist, Handran follows a defined experimental process to create these variable results. His snapshot camera is modified, the shutter removed. The lens protector is deployed as sole guardian of the dark inner chamber. Clumsily, it exposes the film once or over and again to a blinding flow of light, leaving it bruised and blackened. Then, in the dark room, the film is revived, as blackness, the colour of nothing, becomes light. This process of violence and resurrection is unique to the photographic medium.
But photography brings its own limitations. Roland Barthes has written about the tension between the stillness of photography and the intangible qualities of the lived moment: time, mood and sensation.1 The photographs in ‘The white album’ could be seen to develop from this tension. Everyday or banal scenes and objects lose contact with the ‘it is’ of a subject and are transformed into ethereal moments by Handran’s camera. Ghostly colours form on the paper, shifting and changing in the surrounding light. These subtle appearances and disappearances themselves become intangible events through the artist’s mediation.
Though indebted to photographic theory, these works are distinctly painterly in appearance. Through colour, they allude to a vocabulary of utopianism and minimalism of the kind spoken since Kasimir Malevich and Robert Ryman. Artists such as Australian painter Robert Hunter have responded to this, employing white and its pale relatives to emphasise surface and movement in painting. Though Handran’s flares of light are reminiscent of an applied gesture, they too can seem to reflect such minimal emphases. The nature of photography makes surface inescapable, and Handran’s gestures appear trapped beneath the sheen of the development paper. But the artist explains that while white in paint is a base colour to be added upon, in light it is the mixture of all the colours in the spectrum.2
Like the exhibition’s namesake, The Beatles’ ‘White Album’, Chris Handran’s photographs play and experiment with their genre. Their luminous colours shift and change, sliding between ideas of photography and painting, emergence and disappearance. Despite being refined, the works in ‘The white album’ are rich. Though ghostly, otherworldly, they live.
1. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, Flamingo, London, 1988, pp.31-32.
2. Interview with the artist, 11 November 2003.