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Art history as medium

Redgate has consistently employed scale, materiality, volume and surface in unexpected ways, drawing the viewer into a dialogue on what makes us give things their meaning.

What also becomes particularly striking as we follow her career is the persistent use and re-use of art history as a source of new work. This is not a mere ironic recycling of classical imagery, methods or canons that typified so much post-modern art of the 1980s and 90s. Redgate seems to propose that art history has become a medium in itself, its properties to be used at will just as one would employ paint, clay or a camera.

naar het Schilder-boeck

Redgate’s 1985 series naar het Schilder-boeck (from the book of painting) makes this aspect explicit. The Dutch title refers to the first codex of Netherlandish artists written in 1604 while the images themselves are restaged elements drawn from Pieter Bruegel’s 1559 painting The Netherlandish proverbs. Redgate mentions in a 1989 interview that she has ‘brought things back from art history… [and am faced with the question] what is it possible to bring back and how can we reorganise and maintain the original?’(1)

But why reorganise the original in the first place, the viewer might ask. As writer John Berger proposed in his 1972 classic Ways of seeing, ‘the art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose.’ Redgate uses it cautiously, and with great sensitivity.(2)

Untitled, vase shape #1-#5

In works such as Untitled, vase shape #1-#5, Redgate borrows images of vases from paintings by masters such as Henri Matisse and Odilon Redon. These are recreated in 3D, of a black matte material and placed against infinity screens (used by commercial photographers to create a black void behind the subject). From the front, the vases are practically invisible against their background and we are forced to walk around the installation in order to piece together an idea of what they look like. As a commentary on the limits of human perception and fallibility of images, this work appears completely detached. Yet, the artist also emphasises the positive value of active engagement with the artwork and the infinite layers of meaning hidden in the darkness.

Untitled #1

In a playful reversal, a curved, white infinity screen is used in Untitled #1 1989, which is marked by colourful and luminous brushstrokes reminiscent of an abstract expressionist painting. By compressing and transforming real space, Redgate makes a remarkable attempt at combining the spatial qualities of painting, photography and sculpture.

Light throw (mirrors)

Redgate develops this strategy in her latest series, Light throw (mirrors), which achieves a striking balance between critical analysis and expressive possibility. In 2011, Redgate received the prestigious Bowness Photography Prize for this body of work, further confirming her enduring stature in the field. As noted by Michael Desmond in 2005, Redgate ‘emphasises the sensation of her imagery… to tease out an uncharacteristic palpability from her subjects, so that they emerge larger in the mind than in life.’(3)

Issues for consideration

  • In a painting we do not know if the object existed as a model for the painter, but in a photograph we know that it has been there.(4) Think about this quote from Redgate. What do you think she means by this? Is photography more truthful than other forms of artmaking? Give reasons for your answer.
  • Research Redgate’s practice in terms of process and her meticulous attention to the construction of her subject. In what ways is her practice different to that of artists who use forms of photomedia that use digital manipulation? What kinds of truths is Redgate interested in exploring?

(1) Regate in Anne Howell, 'Dilemma in restaging elements of art history’, Eastern Herald, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Sept 1989, p12
(2) John Berger, Ways of seeing, BBC, London, 1972, p10
(3) Michael Desmond, Jacky Redgate 1980–2003, monograph, CASCA, Adelaide, 2005, p22
(4) Regate in Lawrence McDonald and Ruth Watson, ‘Object lessons: an interview with Jacky Redgate’, Illusions, no 17, 1991, pp 32–35