In a red-velvet-clad, womb-like room in the basement of 180 The Strand, 11 human-sized photograms loom. A collaborative series by the artists Harley Weir and George Rouy, Blindly Touching the Flood lights up the plush, darkened enclave. Bodies larger than their viewers’ writhe and swarm within the frame; in hot reds and yellows they glow, like the subjects of heat-seeking thermal imagery, while objects and liquids flare like fireworks around them. Emblems of human connectivity in an increasingly individualistic world, the photograms form a series that melds the idiosyncratic practices of both artists in an aestheticisation of love.
These works are the direct result of human touch. Laying life-sized photosensitive paper on the floors both of their own private spaces and the same room the images are presented in, the pair captured the shadows of whatever was laid upon it by simply exposing it to an overhead light. In the case of Transformer, these were people – in pairs, in groups and singularly – but not exclusively: bodily fluids, ripe fruit, high heels and blunt knives punctuate the soft blur of the explorative limbs rooting around in search of rest, pleasure, comfort and one another. Once the safe room of Arthur Andersen, one of America’s largest multinational companies, this space has had its purpose inverted. No longer a protected enclosure, the safe’s contents are now exposed – the value of its assets based instead on emotion and touch.
“It started off as a very sensual thing,” explains Weir. “In the beginning, it was just George and me in a living room in the dark.” Rouy adds: “But over time, it’s developed its own language – we started to push the process. We applied different fluids to the surface, which confused the image and became its own dialogue.”
Weir’s solo work bristles with texture. In both her fashion imagery for titles such as AnOther Magazine, Dazed, i-D, Self-Service and British Vogue and her personal photographic projects – Homes, a look at the interior of Calais’ largest refugee camp before it was cleared; and Rubbish, a series of still-life compositions derived from the spoils of landfill – each image resonates with materiality. Take the chubby flesh of a baby, the sheen of a discarded pink plastic bag, phallic gourds, the waxy red smudge of a pout, voluptuous yonic plants, the contours of stretching bodies, and the debris – flies, rotting fruit, ash, beetles – that covers faces, flowers, clothing and bedding. Here, sensuality and unease coexist within the artist’s frame, often lit by the unyielding flashbulb of her camera.
Rouy’s work is also corporeal but hums on a lower frequency than that of Weir. Here, masses of bodies writhe, too, but in hedonistic dance. A muted palette casts a hazy, dreamlike gleam across oversized limbs that seem to heave within the confines of his canvas. These otherworldly bodies with an almost Photoshop perfectionism have been presented at galleries on both sides of the Atlantic – Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, Steve Turner, Los Angeles and The Hole, New York – incandescent with their infinitely touchable appeal.
In ditching the camera lens altogether, the large-scale photograms of this new project are a perfect union of Rouy and Weir’s practices. They have the sedated movement of Rouy’s sensual paintings and the acidic tang of Weir’s flash-fuelled photography and allusive photograms. But with drips and smears of fluid poured directly onto the paper’s surface during exposure, they nod more to the spontaneity of action paintings than the very technical photographic studies of early photograms such as Man Ray’s. “There’s a traditional notion of photograms being very nostalgic,” says Rouy, “but we wanted to use that dialogue and push it as far as we could, with a heightened sense of touch and intimacy. They are in the same vein as Yves Klein’s body prints.” (Klein’s Anthropometry paintings were produced as elaborate performances in front of an audience – nude women coated in paint impressed themselves upon canvas that would form a souvenir of the experience.) “They are prints as evidence of movement and they’re similarly obscured, too,” he continues.
Some of the earliest examples of photographic image-making, photograms date back to the 19th-century development of chemically treated paper, upon which shapes could be permanently emblazoned. William Henry Fox Talbot was one of the first practitioners to adopt the technique, freezing the silhouettes of leaves and slips of lace as negative pictures. They became synonymous with the capture of botanical specimens, before being adopted by Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy for more distorted, experimental portrayals of the physical form. The photogram is, of course, innately physical – a direct, chemical response to the action made on that piece of paper. They’re the shadows of performances, of moments. But in the blurring and blending of these physical bodies on the paper, Weir and Rouy take that physicality a step further: in these extreme examples of communality, boundaries and binaries dissolve.
See Blindly Touching the Flood in Transformer: A Rebirth of Wonder at 180 The Strand until December 8, 2019.