An essay exploring the photographic practice of artist and educator Aliki Braine.
To read the published essay complete with images please follow the link below to Photomonitor's webpage:
At the beginning of her essay ‘Thoughts on Collage’ for Revolv Collective’s ‘Exquisite Futures’, Aliki Braine references Virginia Woolf’s six-year-old character James Ramsay collaging with the pages of a domestic magazine. Immersed in the now of this activity, this innocent child’s play is how I find myself thinking whilst trying to reconcile the diverse and exquisitely informed practice of Braine’s. When reducing her practice to pure aesthetics, I am myself reminded of being a child drawing by dot-to-dot. One dot, one sphere leading onto the next. Freed from the parameters of a single page, this time the dots not only travel across space but also time. An arrangement of coloured discs target and obscure a Giotto painting from the 14th Century. Following on from this like machine gun fire, a line of circular black voids pepper a forest, this piece referencing Paolo Uccello’s ‘The Hunt’. And then I find myself staring at a vast circle which engulfs the entirety of the ocean with enough gravitational force to invert the scene (a homage to the nature of optics and how both the human eye and camera receive visual information within both upturned and circular parameters). Although her work includes more angular works, featuring diagonally folded negatives or, more recently, hand woven reproduced prints, it is the circle and its place as a perfect return journey as well as its relation to optics that I find myself drawn to.
Informed by her practice as an art historian, Aliki Braine recognises how this inherited syntax still dictates our visual language today. However, rather than subverting this, she brings it to the surface of her work, quite literally. The exquisite draftsmanship of the painters whom she lectures on (and who still reside as ghosts in our visual language) produced everything as physical gestures in the form of paint on canvas. Today the distribution of imagery comes, for the most part, in the form of photography. Composition, selecting what remains in the frame, what looks good tonally and what colours converse best are all archetypes still lingering from the language of painting. No matter how prosaic the context of the photograph, whether it’s a rambler capturing the landscape traversed or lovers photographing each other in a restaurant, hundreds of years of western painting is embedded into the image.
When interrogating this translation from former specialist artisans to the most ubiquitous of mediums in the 21st Century she works the surface of her materials not unlike these predecessors. Questioning and unashamedly tactile with her materials, Braine surpasses the image as a final product and leaves her own marks. Although this isn’t strictly true. Braine’s physical interactions with the materiality of the photographic medium typically happens at the point of process. That in-between stage of documenting a subject and producing a print. Cutting and rotating, whole punching, stickering, and making photographic “confetti” (see ‘A Thousand Fallen Blossoms’) all happen within the photograph. The manipulations live inside a perfect and unadulterated print. Residing in a photographic container are both the actions of a contemporary artist and the accumulation of centuries of art history.
When consolidating the works of Braine, her ‘Works On Paper’ stand out slightly, however. For one thing they are appropriated images, not her own photographs later manipulated. In fact, at first glance, they might be overlooked as not of photographic nature at all. And as for her own interaction with the images the action taken no longer resides within the image but rather on it. It is this identification of material and action that lends the term ‘Works on Paper’, less a title and more an overarching categorisation of pieces identified purely by materials and action of which I will be using within this essay. When seen in person, these are works of layers. Aliki Braine’s circular stickers cling to a surface atop another surface. These readymade photographic prints, gleaned from arts magazines from the 1960’s and 70’s, have themselves a dimension. Coagulated inks bound together form the basis of these images. Small moments in time themselves, it is fitting that these prints themselves have a level of impasto not unlike the paintings they depict.
Upon its invention photography was very quickly deployed as a medium of mediums: a tool in which one of its main purposes would be to reproduce more prestigious artworks. It’s no wonder that John Berger’s first episode of the revered Ways of Seeing was centred around the medium of photography being used as a tool to more widely distribute the imagery of painting.
Perhaps a little confounding and perplexing to critics and curators alike, these overworked reproductions operate as the perfect link between the artists academic and creative practise whilst also hinting at the greater complexities hidden within Braine’s more widely seen works. In one sense they are the ideal blend of renaissance painting and photographic imaging, the cross pollination of a life spent lecturing on historical painters and a personal endeavour to interrogate the photographic medium.
In addition to this, it is an easily discernible manifestation of marking points of visual interest on a masterpiece which is then easily transferable knowledge to works such as ‘The Hunt #3’. This scene, devoid of any figures, becomes immediately accessible in its references. Previously when mentioning this piece of Braine’s, I did so with language more readily encountered in a war report than an arts critique. Of course, ‘The Hunt’ is a work of violence, however my choice in wording was more so in reference to photography as a medium of violence: you load a canister of film, you target your subject, you shoot a photograph, and the analogies go on. I find this of particular relevance to Aliki Braine. The coloured dots that pepper these reproductions act almost like tracer rounds following a destructive path of vision. In this case the point of interest is obscured, obliterated by the crossfire. However, is this not the case anyway when we make a photograph? The moment captured is the one moment we don’t see, we eradicate it from lived experience. Formerly a matter of fact with analogue shutters but this photographic physiology has been passed on to its digital counterparts. The digital screen of your DSLR or even your iPhone screen will go blank at the point of shutter depression. Braine’s work gives visual awareness to a viewer through her reduction of possibilities. We become aware of our own habits of looking and we become aware of the history of these habits. An act of apparent vandalism is in fact one of utmost respect.
The arts, like almost all aspects of Western society, are patriarchal. However, within this climate of injustice Braine has a near total control of her practice. She holds a god-like perspective on her actions. Everything she does is done so from above. Stickering over prints, she does so from above. Whole punching negatives, she does so from above. Even when she photographs a landscape, she does so from above. With her medium format camera’s waist-level viewfinder, a landscape becomes much the same as the aerial view she takes when interrogating her photographic materials. Through her art she not only confounds the male gaze attached to historical paintings, such as ‘Masterpiece in Many Coloured Dots (after Veronese)’, 2018, but she also takes absolute control over her work in a time when women still find themselves limited by external forces. This brings me back to her essay in ‘Thoughts on Collage’. She ends the essay with another of Woolf’s characters. This time it is Nancy, the sister of James Ramsay, who takes centre stage. Assuming the perspective and power of a god she transforms a humble rockpool into a vast ocean world. Nancy assumes supreme control from above, obscuring and revealing the sun’s sphere as she wishes. And what of this sphere, this circular disc that visits from above? In Edwin Abbott’s early sci-fi novel Flatland, it is the perfect sphere that visits the realm of flatland, a world of only two dimensions where everyone else is angular. To be visited by a circular shape of this magnificence in Flatland is to be visited by God, a being of absolute perfection that descends from above.
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