Private View: Thursday 8th of December 6:30 - 9pm
London (London Bridge, Speak Easy)
Fragmented faces and limbs appear embedded within maze like compositions of black and white lines that are disrupted by precisely cut-out shapes. These are the works of London-based artist Jonny Briggs, whose practice combines photography, performance, and sculpture to explore issues around childhood and identity. Archival family portraits provide the artist with an entry point into a complex and painful past, which he endeavours to both understand and reinterpret through his adult perspective. Deconstructions, the title of Briggs’ first solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde gallery, refers to the ways in which the artist physically dissembles and rebuilds relics of the past, but also to Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction as an attempt to render justice. Indeed, while many of Briggs’ works imply violence, they are primarily concerned with the breaking apart of rigid structures to create space for new perspectives.
Briggs’ practice centres around a process of repetition in which he continually dredges up and deconstructs the past in order to make sense of and purge past traumas. He describes his relationship to the ‘family portrait’ as deeply suspicious, owing to performative and often misleading nature of the image. Growing up he found his role as the only son among four sisters to be heavily prescribed and later restrictive to the development of his own sense of self as a queer man. By recontextualising and fragmenting the family portraits that memorialise that time in his life, Briggs is able to reshape the dominant narrative that ran counter to his lived experience and find a sense of release.
This is perhaps most obvious in the works titled Blink 1 and Blink 2 in which the archival image is barely visible, encased within multiple layers of black and white mount assembled in a striped, rectangular pattern. The photograph sits at the centre, offering, in each work, a partial view of a person’s face, almost as if they were peeping through a letter box. Briggs has punched a small hole in the figure’s only visible eye and through this hole, if you look very closely, you can glimpse Briggs’ own eye from where he has held the image to his face and rephotographed it. This not only creates a collision of time and space, but also sets up a complex tension between the act of looking and being seen that runs throughout many of the works in the exhibition. While the recurring motif of eyes are a direct reference to sight, the cuts that Briggs makes through the works also play on the idea of concealment and revelation – the white space is both an erasure and a site of possibility. In both Blink 1 and 2, for example, there is a line cut through the frame down to the centre of the image that simultaneously destroys the regularity of the composition and further obscures the figure, while also symbolically releasing the work from its strict structure. ‘My resistance to the frame comes from a childhood feeling of confinement in terms of gender, trying to find my place within the family and to live up to my father’s expectations,’ explains Briggs.
In another work, comprising a portrait of two young boys, two horizontal lines have been cut out of each face extending from their eyes upwards, out of the top of their head. These cut out sections have then been stuck outside the frame of the image. Conceptually the idea of such physical mutilation – the gauging out of children’s eyes – is unbearably brutal, but the violence of the act is disguised by the formal aesthetic – the black and white colour palette and straight lines, which, as Briggs notes, bring to mind the strict tailoring of a traditional man’s suit. In many ways, it is a familiar story of brutal masculinity passing for the polite and respectable (or paternal), but rather than positioning himself as the victim, Briggs – as the artist – re-enacts the trauma. Through the symbolic mutilation of the image, he attempts to understand not just the impacts on the child (himself) but also the conditions which breed this kind of behaviour.
‘All of us have experienced aspects of our lives where we have not been in control, but making art gives me agency, it allows me to externalise certain feelings and to find a way of moving forward,’ says Briggs. Importantly, this release is achieved not just through acts of violence, but also humour. In some works, Briggs’ body parts appear to point fun at the predictability of the portrait. In Point, for example, the artist’s finger intrudes on the formality of the archival photograph, extending down the centre of the figure’s forehead to the tip of a cut-out triangle shape. It appears almost as if the finger has magically made the space appear and is pointing playfully at its erasure while also revealing the artist’s power over the gaze: we see what he wants us to see, even if it’s nothing. Here, as in other works, Briggs might be performing for the image, but he is also the one creating it. In this way, he not only reclaims a sense of agency, but also puts forward a more sensitive approach to dealing with the past that asserts the importance of multiple perspectives.