As the great Russian novels of the nineteenth Century showed, sometimes the human condition is most profoundly articulated by the unassuming fabric of quotidian lives. With We, John Peter Askew accomplishes something similar in visual form.
This exhibition, and the sumptuous book that accompanies it, synthesise Askew’s twenty-year project to honour four generations of the Chulakov family in Perm – a city almost as far from Moscow as Moscow is from London, marking the easternmost extent of our shared European continent.
Hundreds of photographs in rectangular arrangements on walls and trestle tables fill the gallery, with bright pop-art colours and such a sweep of sensory information that one leaves imagining having heard and smelt the experience as well as seeing it. As if to underline the lack of pretentiousness (no frames, mounts, tricksy lighting or clever captions), some prints are positioned in corners or by fire-doors – for indeed, this is a homage to honest life, not a zookeepered spectacle.
With different time-periods interwoven, individual family members, groups, occasions, objects, activities, settings and plays of light are presented in an apparent melding of care and spontaneity, playfulness and dignity. Every subject’s unselfconsciousness attests to Askew’s having been just one amongst them. It is thus both the artistic process and its reception that combine to produce the profound authenticityat the heart of this work.
Each image takes on a semi-iconic import, with one or two central ideas positioned deliberately but often unconventionally framed – the centre of gravity is sometimes in a surprising place, a horizon may slant if the moment requires it, and no cinematographic ‘tidying’ has interfered with reality.
The intense gazing this encourages in the viewer can then make the single-focus images (an apple; a foot; a pair of scissors, a window-frame) among the most successful. Aesthetic specialness becomes noticed in happy accidents of ordinariness – the stacking of plates, the hanging of lemons, the drape of a curtain.
Other repeating motifs abound – flowers and foodstuffs speak to the fertile blooming and fruiting of life, while tablecloths and curtains evoke a civilising impulse thriving in a harsh environment.
In a separate part of the venue, selected additional works are being rotated during the run. The first of these is a single indistinct portrait of the artist’s mother. Reminiscent of the ‘brunaille’ paintings of Eugène Carrière, the image is dark, and it is just possible in the old woman’s face to see the girl she once was, and perhaps another mother and grandmother before that.
Askew’s central concern is to proffer ‘respect’ or ‘recognition’ to all his subject-matter. He presents everything as true in itself, not asking to be ‘interpreted’: his art is thus a romantic empiricism with a solid moral core. It is also a colourful window onto an intergenerational, close-to-the-earth mode of existence that may be timeless (spanning both the end of Soviet communism and the arrival of digital photography), yet also under threat.
Whatever the differences, perhaps more powerfully emphasised here is the recognisable common humanity that we share across the whole east-west span of Europe. Weis therefore undoubtedly also ‘us’.
We is on until Sunday 18 August at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, National Glass Centre, Sunderland.
Monday – Sunday: 10am – 5pm. Free admission.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.