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Sandy Sharp at Street Level

My review of Sandy Sharpe’s show at Street Level Photoworks was chopped down a fair bit by the subs at the Scotsman, so here’s the full text. Sometimes I think it might be nice if we adopted the American tradition of freelancers signing off on edits after each change, not because I’m all precious about my copy, more because, as in this case, the sense of a piece can be altered significantly when it’s cut to fit the space available.

For four years, Sandy Sharp has visited the abandoned Ravenscraig steelworks, documenting the site as it is slowly-but-surely reclaimed by nature. The results of his project are gathered here, presented in three parts: Creation, Achievement and Renewal.

These are, make no mistake, beautiful images, and Sharp, a founding member of Street Level Photoworks, shows his colours as a photographers’ photographer. The Creation and Renewal sets are mostly small studies, in lush colour, often gathered together as diptychs or triptychs. ‘Furnace,’ for example, shows an outcrop of rusted ore in sharp focus, with plant life behind a near-abstract blur, while ‘Prospect’ sees a plucky little tree, alone under an impossibly blue sky, battling against the wind.

At this point, in the corridor-like space leading to Street Level’s gallery proper, Sharp’s work falls a little flat: the concepts covered here are immediately grasped, and, while the colour prints are fine studies, taken together they fail to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Face the final set, Achievement, though, and the thinking behind the show’s title becomes clear. This is indeed Another World. Low-contrast landscapes verge on being greyscale abstracts, slag heaps layered in snow have a lunar look, and long exposures make wind-blown shrubs struggle against the lumpen mass of abandoned equipment. Four large images, of bridges and flyovers, demand to have time spent with them, slowly revealing familiar forms through a blur of deep black and smoke grey.

One thing, though, is missing from these photographs: people. First, Sharp himself is wholly absent, leaving no clues to his motivation. Is this a eulogy for a lost industry, with one hopeful eye on the future? Or is it reportage, a beautiful document of an ugly landscape? Or could it be that the location is irrelevant, serving as a foil for Sharp’s unnerring skill for drawing wonderfully precise compositions from chance juxtapositions? Second, for a show that takes as its central theme the clash of man and nature, there is little that is human here. The Achievement series is peppered with human objects - a discarded gas-mask, a dusty pair of shoes - and the section’s title itself speaks of a pride in lost industry. But the images themselves are cold, and there is no pathos in these abandoned artifacts.

We cannot but admire Sharp’s skill, and soak up the beauty in his images with pleasure, but, in the end, there is nothing behind them to latch on to.

Posted at 4pm on 01/08/04 by Jack Mottram to the art and culture category.
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