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Mute Swan by Calum Colvin

"My work over the last fifteen years has existed on the boundaries of Painting, Photography, Sculpture and Electronic Imaging. I have been referencing images, primarily from the History of Painting, to explore ideas concerned with national identity, sexuality and various aspects of contemporary culture. These images are combined in the processes of construction, painting and photography in order to create a multi-referential artwork. Much of this work has been concerned with the very process of looking, perceiving and interpreting. The potential meanings of any individual piece being intrinsically linked to the viewers personal deconstruction of the photograph. In this respect I have made a point of utilising the unique fixed point perspective of the camera to collect the manipulated and constructed image in order to create elaborate narratives. These narratives have the quality of being both open and closed. They are closed in that they clearly refer to given icons and archetypes of Western culture, but open in that they accommodate any number of potential readings. These readings, in turn, reflect the contemporary cultural climate and the unique authorial role of the viewer. Computer manipulation of photographic imagery has been a key feature of my work over the last nine years. I have been exploring the potential of the computer to facilitate believable, yet fantastical scenarios. This has extended the core technique of my constructed photographic images. More recently, I have used the computer in order to develop the creative narrative of my imagery, cross-referencing details and symbolic elements throughout series of works.

My work consists of elaborately constructed scenarios combining techniques of painting, sculpture and lighting to create complex narrative tableau which are photographed and exhibited as colour photographic prints. I am interested in the transformation that occurs when everyday objects are juxtaposed with painted images frequently appropriated from the annals of Western Art History. I hope to engage the viewer in a 'visual dialogue'where layers of meaning are gradually discerned and themes of politics, sexuality and belief are encountered in a darkly humourous manner. The Swans' androgynous symbolism is explored and the myth of Leda and the Swan is alluded to." Calum Colvin

Over the past two decades constructed photography has gained recognition as a reputable artistic genre, winning the respect of critics and curators alike. It gathered momentum, and a considerable coterie of practitioners, during its rapid rise to prominence in the late 1970s. By the late 80s, however, it seemed to have passed its zenith - the honeymoon was over. Maybe it had become too formulaic. Its fortunes, symptomatic of the fashionable idiom, took a downturn: overexposure had dulled its appeal. A nucleus of artists, however, has maintained the impetus of the genre, continuing to pushforward its possibilities and relevance as a cultural signifier and producing a very important corpus of work.

Constructed photography grew out of the postmodernist urge to test the degree to which the indexicality, the truth, of the photograph could be stretched. This was given a good airing in the 1970s through the simulated and appropriated photographs of the American artists Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine. Constructed photography, however, scaled things down a little; it miniaturised them, exploring through the aggregation of fantasy and the miniaturised simulation of reality the possibilities offered by the artistic control of both signifier and signified. Laurie Simmons, Ellen Brooks and Ken Botto - three Americans - were the pioneers of this work in the latel 970s.

Despite the rich divergence of their images, the basic processes used by the practitioners of constructed photography follow a similar pattern. Initially the artist constructs a model or tableau which is a cross between a still-life arrangement and a simulated scenario of reality. These tableaux often assume the role of symbol or metaphor in providing visual critiques in the modes of parody, pastiche, or satire. When the artist has arrived at the desired effect in the tableau - frequently the clim`dx of several weeks' work - he/she photographs it, and it is the resultant photographic image which becomes the art work, the model usually being dismantled or destroyed once the photographic process is complete.

We have all, at some time in our lives, enjoyed creating and occupying our own little fantasy worlds, whose sanctuary may have involved the doll's house, the model railway or the battlefield, Barbie, Legoland or Action Man. Oblivious to any sexist connotations, disbelief suspended with ease,many happy hours have been whiled away in such reverie. The artifice, however, was always summarily dissolved by the return of the real. Outgrowing the alibi of childhood, we either relinquished these interludes or relegated them to the closet, the realm of the clandestine. The abandonment of those acts of living through fantasy was a loss, just one of a number of little deaths we suffer during the course of our lives. Interestingly, Roland Barthes, in his book Camera Lucida, describes the photograph as witness to the death of a moment - and so it is in the aide-memoire of the portrait or the documentary. The constructed photograph, however, is natal rather than mortal. It gives birth to something which never before existed and through its'indexical authority' it imbues something which is pure artifice with reality.

Work in this genre is an affirmation of Jean Baudrillardis prophecy of the rise of the 'hyperreal' in our culture, where the simulacrum precedes its referent. Baudrillard uses the analogy of the map pre-dating its terrain, whereby simulation will provide the driving force for our civilisation-evoking the nightmare scenario of the robot-driven world. Constructed photography hardly equates with this grim prophecy but, when skilfully handled, it does provide a powerful medium full of symbolic, narrative and emotive potential. Its appeal demonstrates the need for a measure of fantasy in our lives, its fascinating images providing a very welcome alibi for forays into that tantalising terrain.

Calum Colvin was born in 1961 in Glasgow. Colvin's tableaux consist of elaborate assemblages of found and gathered objects. Some are domestic but others are closer to the keepsake or souvenir, clustering around the kitsch end of the aesthetic spectrum. These apparently irrational arrangements are given coherence by the figures (often humans, but sometimes birds or animals) which are painted across the melange of objects. The integrity of the image is cleverly maintained via Colvin's tricks of perspective, which play across the multiangled, multi-faceted surfaces until, ironically, the assembled objects themselves lose their identity, surrendering themselves to the painter's whim and creating a visual conundrum for the viewer's eye. The reappearance of favoured items has become a trademark of Colvin's one such object being a kitsch neo-baroque circular mirror which has on more than one occasion been the site of a covert self-portrait (visible only to the most alert viewer). An Action Man, wearing his kilt with pride, also appears in many images, affirming the strength of Colvin's national allegiance. All of this makes Colvin references to Renaissance art and classical sculpture seem somewhat incongruous.

[From: Roy Exley 'Construction Sights']
Artist:Calum Colvin
Artwork type:photograph
Style/Period:constructed photography
Material:contructed colour photograph
Measurements:30" x 40"
Location:Art Institute of Chicago
Rights owner:Calum Colvin
Rights status:UK HE use only
Institution:Dundee - Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art

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