BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 11 NOV 97
Featured in
Issue 37

Mat Collishaw

BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 11 NOV 97

Coy, wide-eyed, vulnerable and effeminate, the young Italian boys in Mat Collishaw's new photo-works exude knowing precociousness and innocence in equal measure. Naked except for a few modestly arranged props, they assume poses that mix the look of early erotic photography with that of a Calvin Klein ad: a kind of detached longeur. The setting for the photographs is appropriately one of dereliction - the decaying interiors of abandoned industrial buildings.

In John, Luca and Salvatore (1997), an adolescent youth leans up against a wall by a window in an administration office-type space. Overturned furniture, files and scattered papers litter the floor. In the close foreground a much younger boy stands behind a chair, staring out from the photograph with brown doe eyes. The photograph is steeped in saturated colour, and this, combined with a lush, skin-stroking light, gives to the scene a morphia-like headiness. Though any sexual impropriety is only implied, together with the evidence of vandalism and the act of trespass, there's surely a prosecutable case of breaking and entering.

But all is not clear cut. In other photographs the boys adopt more pronounced classical poses, providing an air of legitimacy and respectability, while draped white sheets and bunches of plastic flowers add further touches of artful decency. And if the dereliction of the setting suggests corruption, it is offset by some of the boys putting on expressions of piety and devotion that could easily have been lifted from religious painting. This is familiar ground in Collishaw's work. Slippery and ambiguous, the waters are as muddied as the puddle into which the artist stares in his earlier Narcissus (1991) self-portrait. There's something of a wilful delinquency about 'Lost Boys' too. It's as if Collishaw were toying with ideas of beauty and morality in the same way a cat might amuse itself with a caught mouse; as if they are simply a way of extracting some kind of sensation from the flat and deadened surface of contemporary life.

What remains slightly odd about the exhibition is the question of why the photographic images have been made with that rinky-dinky 3-D effect normally reserved for kitsch postcards and cereal packet inserts. Was it to cheapen them and undermine their formal eloquence and potency? Clearly, the heavy, pronounced compositional depth of field in the photographs was intended to exaggerate the 3-D effect. Yet what it does, by accident almost, is to give a push/pull dynamic to the imagery that actually enhances their seductive spin.

Finding oneself somewhat dumbly moving a foot or two back and forth in front of the photographs in order to catch the full 3-D effect, it's possible to dismiss it as a distracting gimmick. But it does fit in with Collishaw's taste for a whimsical kind of kitsch. Add to it the presentation of the photographs in boutique-style light boxes, and Collishaw succeeds in transforming the images into chic and funky art trinkets with a nice Christmas-y feel.

The 'realism' of including a pile of office rubbish in the centre of the gallery, however, really serves no purpose other than to give the exhibition a rather formulaic and tired contemporary-art-installation look. At the same time, with 'Lost Boys' Collishaw has produced perhaps the best expression of the particular bitter-sweet sensibility that he has made his own over the last few years. As with his snowstorm ornaments containing tourist scenes populated by the homeless and beggars, or the video projection into a bell jar of a fluttering, trapped bird, Collishaw offers us a troubled and contradictory kind of beauty, one in which sentimentality, desire, pain, cynicism and faith all ceaselessly collide.