BY Pablo Lafuente in Reviews | 14 NOV 05
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Issue 95

Alessandro Raho

BY Pablo Lafuente in Reviews | 14 NOV 05

Discussions of photography in art often end up considering the notion of punctum, as formulated by Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida (1980). Barthes identifies two distinct elements within photographs, a binary structure that can be extremely fruitful in analysing photographs: the studium, a general human interest or quality invested in the image by the viewer on the basis of certain political or moral aspects that both viewer and image share; and the punctum, a disruption of the studium generated by a discordant element within the image itself, unintentional and unexpected. There is a problem, however. Camera Lucida analyses photographs not as art, but as images, in which he finds reflections of cultural, social or political ethos. The role of the viewer is to decipher those images and ‘read’ both studium and punctum elements in order to understand what the photographs communicate. But this functionalist consideration of the photographic image is completely at odds with an idea of photography as art – an approach as inappropriate as thinking of painting or literature as mere means of communication.

To accompany his latest exhibition of paintings Alessandro Raho has selected several works by Guy Bourdin, a photographer who took pictures for a range of fashion magazines from 1955 until 1987. The images, displayed both as individually framed pictures on the wall and within the open pages of the magazines where they were originally published, are extremely mannered compositions that combine slick Surrealist imagery with an almost abstract use of colour and form. On one level, by making evident a tension between the product that they are supposed to depict and its image, they take a critical and baroque perspective on image-use and image-making in the fashion industry (a subject to which Barthes dedicated The Fashion System, 1967). On another level they are extreme exercises in visual seduction, achieved through the combination of artificiality (saturated colours, the staged compositions) and sensual and emotional immediacy (suggested by the Surrealist overtones of the images).

Bourdin’s photographs escape Barthes’ analysis in both The Fashion System (they don’t seem to demand a caption that establishes their meaning) and Camera Lucida (they don’t leave any room for the spontaneity of the punctum but still have its ‘bite’), yet it is hard for them to escape their status as simple images. Their effect relies on trickery, and they function very differently when their context is altered (from magazine to wall, for instance). Raho’s paintings explore a similar territory to Bourdin’s work – image-making, visual seduction, artificiality and immediacy. Catherine (all works 2005), for example, a two and a half metre high painting of a woman in white clothes standing against a black background, is an imposing ornamental figure and, placed right by the gallery entrance, unorthodoxly close to the street, is also effectively a form of window display. Her assured, affected pose and the light that seems to radiate from her clothes invites closer inspection but keep their distance.

In the main gallery space, Simon, a portrait of a young man wearing a pink shirt on a white background, and Orchids, an image of two flowers also against a white backdrop, are more introspective than self-assured. Displayed next to them, Woburn, depicting untidy urban vegetation, and Battersea, an almost abstract blue and green landscape, change the register and, instead of focusing on a central figure, employ environmental forms to suggest mood. In these paintings the attraction takes the form of an invitation to enter the picture (in Woburn a small flower, pink like both the orchids and Simon’s shirt, works as the bait), but something (the messy vegetation, the ‘off’ colours, the detailed but shallow appearance) contradict it.

Another painting also entitled Catherine depicts the same woman but, this time includes a landscape. The life-size figure, now in a patterned white dress, faces the viewer in a small room at the back of the gallery. The woman (perhaps also, more sinisterly redolent of Bourdin, the ‘bait’) is surrounded by urban vegetation similar to that found in Woburn and Battersea. Of all the images in Raho’s exhibition this seems closest to Bourdin’s – both figure and background appear strangely appealing yet slightly menacing. However, differences become clear: Raho’s unapologetic romanticism appears sophisticated but honest, and ultimately, as a vehicle for an image, self-sufficient from the demands of photography’s functionalism.