Study Visit: The rhubarb triangle and other stories – Martin Parr

From the 4 Feb – 12 Jun 16, the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield is exhibiting work by Martin Parr than spans over 4 decades. At the centre of the exhibition is a body of work recently commissioned by the Hepworth about the local Rhubarb Triangle. The OCA organised a study visit to on 12 Mar 15 led by Tutor Derek Trillo and attended by about 14 students all studying at either level 1 or 2. As with all study visits, it was great to meet some fellow students and to discuss the work with like-minded people, with the added experience and views of a tutor.

Having never been to Wakefield before, I was quite impressed at the size and sculptural architecture of the Hepworth. It is quite a magnificent gallery space, slightly out-of-place amongst the ageing and derelict post-industrial buildings that surround it.

The Rhubarb Triangle.

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The rhubarb triangle. 2014-2016. Info sheet

The first thing to strike me on viewing this work was the method of installation. The photographs are unframed and are pinned to the wall. There are no captions or titles, other than those on an accompanying sheet. The titles/captions offer nothing other than a place-name or the names of the people in the photographs. It gives the work a very temporary feel, which is in contrast to the trade being depicted and the length of the exhibition. I can only imagine that it is a cost cutting measure. The photographs are Documentary in nature, with a linear narrative that culminates in the ‘end product’ which really gives structure to the work and emphasises the toil of the workers. The set is very diverse, with a mixture of landscapes, portraits and action shots. Despite the diversity in technique and layout, the images are still recognisably part of the same set thanks to a common style and colouring that is stereotypically Parr.

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The rhubarb triangle. 2014-2016. Installation view.

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The rhubarb triangle. 2014-2016. Installation view.

From AUTOPORTRAIT.

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From AUTOPORTRAIT, ongoing. 1991-2012. Info Sheet.

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From AUTOPORTRAIT, Ongoing. 1991-2012. Installation view.

I’d seen some of this work during Part 3 whilst looking at Self Portraiture. As the Info sheet states, these images are largely quite funny, but they tell us an awful lot about the cultural identity of the nation where these photographs were taken as well as the perceptions of tourists. The fact that the same subject can be represented so many ways was very interesting and made for quite captivating viewing.

Work and Leisure.

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Work and Leisure. 1986-2015. Info Sheet.

Given the sheer breadth of work that these photographs have been selected from, there is a real diversity to them. Splitting the exhibition in two helps to add impact in each area. The standard Parr humour is evident in each photo with many being  quite satirical, but despite this, they portray a bleak view of the world through consumerism. There is a definite subjectivity to these photographs that I didn’t find evident in the Rhubarb Triangle.

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Work and Leisure. 1986-2015. Installation View.

Common Sense.

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Common sense. 1995-1999. Info Sheet.

The densely packed images, most of which are tightly cropped make for a display that is ‘in your face’. The viewer feels saturated and gluttonous which I guess goes hand in hand with the point that Parr is trying to make. We are consumed by consumerism. The Brightly saturated colours together with the image contents, all combine to denote/connate Parr’s message.

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Common Sense. 1995-1999. Installation view.

The Cost of Living.

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The cost of living, 1986-1989. Info Sheet.

This installation was quite refreshing as it was properly framed which gave it a quality feel, which in turn commanded attention. I found this body of work to be one of the more interesting on display because the photographs were not brash or obvious. Some time and effort was required to read the photographs, picking away at the subtle expressions and interactions between the middle classes. There is a subtle story-telling at play and these photographs highlight Parr’s exceptional observational skills.

The last resort.

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The last resort. 1983-1985. Info Sheet.

I’d seen some of these images online during my previous module, but seeing them in large print was great. I think that this is some of Parr’s best work. It is highly observational and politically charged without being overtly so. It portrays a sense of ‘Britishness’ amongst the working classes and humanises them at a time when the North of England suffered under Thatcherism. I couldn’t help but feel that the set is also a little exploitative. Parr’s humour is evident and many of his photographs are taken at that ‘decisive moment’. Coupled with a strong subjectivity, many of the subjects can appear to be the butt of the joke when we view this work in the context of the gallery.

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The last resort. 1983-1985. Installation View.

The non-conformists.

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The non-conformists. 1975-1980. Info Sheet.

In stark contrast to The Last Resort, this body of work appears to be very sympathetic its subject(s). I first saw some of this work at the NMM alongside the work of Tony Ray Jones who had a strong influence on Parr. Again, the work is documentary in nature and it conveys a sense of pride as well as sorrow and grief. I wonder if some of this is due to looking at these images in retrospect? Given the ageing population of the village and the rate of progress in recent years, one can’t help but feel sorrowful for what has disappeared since these photographs were made.

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The non-conformists. 1975-1980. Installation view.

There was an awful lot of Parr’s work on display and it was great to see the power of both subjectivity and objectivity in photography. It was also helpful to see how Parr’s work has developed and changed over the years as well as to discuss the context of such photographs over the years. With such a wide range of work, it was difficult to take it all in, but on the flip side, it made the trip really worth while.

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