Looking for the Subject | Michael Hirschfeld Gallery 2007

Adrienne Martyn’s project 'Looking for the Subject' is a photographic investigation into the power gallery installation has in influencing our reading of artworks. The photographs document paintings in various gallery settings with the focus placed on the gallery framing devices as the subject of the works themselves. At first appearing like a series of Ad Rheinhardt’s monochromatic canvases, in thirteen of these fourteen immaculate black and white prints, Martyn has depicted the paintings with the artwork digitally removed, leaving enigmatic black voids in their place. Without the distraction of the paintings’ subjects to consider, we are invited to critique the impact the installation devices used in an exhibition have on the audience’s viewing experience.

Developed between 1990 and 2005, the works in ‘Looking for the Subject’ were the product of an on-going project examining galleries of the world. The three galleries photographed in this exhibition are The Louvre, Paris; The Auckland Art Gallery and The New Gallery, Auckland. Each gallery in this series imparts a sense of the time period of the displayed work, suggesting a chronology of museological conventions. In 'Louvre (1)', 'Louvre (2)' and 'Louvre (3)' one can see by looking closely that the blacked-out paintings are by Renaissance and Neo-Classicist artists. As was fitting for the time, the paintings are displayed in large ornate frames against darkly coloured walls. In 'Louvre (4)' and 'Louvre (5)', the people depicted provide a sense of scale to the paintings and appear almost overwhelmed by these large imposing forms.

The differences in site are even more marked when compared to the five works photographed at the Auckland Art Gallery. Hung on white walls, the paintings have much smaller and plainer frames. In the photographs taken in The New Gallery, Auckland, we can see that architectural features are pared back even further to give a minimalist, contemporary aesthetic.

‘Looking for the Subject’ also addresses notions of the gallery as a tourist destination. The Louvre is the most visited and also one of the largest and oldest museum galleries in the world. Housing some of the world’s most well-known and frequently reproduced artworks, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c.1503—1507), a constant stream of visitors feel compelled to stand before such works and (until recent rule changes at The Louvre) photograph them as personal keepsakes. However, in Martyn’s 'Louvre (6)' we get a sense of the frequently voiced reaction to such an experience—that of disappointment. The Mona Lisa is depicted obscured by the lighting and reflections in its bullet-proof glass casing. The distance the viewer is required to keep amplifies the often heard observation of how small the painting is in comparison to viewer expectations. The blurred crowd we see in the reflection gives a sense of the flurry of excitement this work continues to generate and the almost religious pilgrimage visitors will undertake to see the work in its original.

It is interesting to consider why this painting over all the others in The Louvre attracts so much attention, and how this has not always been the case. A significant event in its history happened on August 21 1911 when the Mona Lisa was stolen by a painter who had been working at the gallery. The frenzy of attention the theft generated was unprecedented. Ironically, visitor numbers increased over the time the painting was missing—everyone wanted to see for themselves the space where the painting had been, its absence was intriguingly more appealing than its presence’ Perhaps the painting’s fame is the reason this is the only one Martyn chose not to black out in this series. The image’s ubiquity, its frequent reproduction and imitation has led to itself functioning as a void.

In recent years museums and galleries, whether the public side of them or the behind the scenes, have gained in interest for artists wanting to comment on the role these institutions play in shaping what is considered significant. Photographers such as Thomas Struth have focused on the social qualities of galleries, of how visitors position themselves within a space and in relation to the art around them. The work of Louise Lawler has also been of interest to Martyn. Lawler’s photographs of informal arrangements of objects in museum basements, like Martyn’s photographs, seek to explore ‘the social and political agendas concealed behind the museum’s supposedly neutral facade.’2 Through the works of ‘Looking for the Subject’ it becomes clear that neutrality of presentation is a futile objective. We become conscious of what’s happening beyond the photograph’s edge, our own actions and experiences and our location within the gallery around us.

Adrienne Martyn was born in Wellington in 1950. In 2006 she received a Master of Fine Arts with First Class Honours from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. Martyn has had several solo exhibitions including ‘Adrienne Martyn: Portraits - A Survey 1979-87', mounted and toured by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 1988; 'Through Time’, Artspace, Auckland, 1990 and 'Lake', Waikato Museum of Art and History, 2001 and appeared in group exhibitions: ‘New Light', Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, 1983; 'Women Photograph Women', Munich Institute, Germany, 1986 and 'New Sights New Sites’, Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand,
2001. She was the inaugural Samuel Marsden Artist in Residence, 1999 and Artist in Residence at Waikato Museum in 2000. Martyn currently lives in Wellington.

Jessica Reid

1. Leader, D., Stealing the Mona Lisa, Faber and Faber: London, 2002.
2. Putnam, James, Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium, Thames & Hudson, USA, 2001, p.30.