Regeneration, The Photographers’ Gallery, London – review

“Regeneration” here carries a double meaning. Giving new life to found photographs through diverse interventions – collage, overpainting, adding text – the six established and emerging artists in this show also reinvigorate the medium of photography itself. In doing so, they draw attention to the subversive force of images and to the power of the subjective gaze, and suggest ways of challenging visual anaesthesia in an era of sensory overload.

British conceptualist John Stezaker began reacting against the triumph of pop art in the 1970s with a strategy of surrealist appropriation of movie stills, vintage postcards and book illustrations. Adjusting, inverting, rotating, cropping and slicing pictures, Stezaker creates new meanings through fractured compositions, fresh contexts, unlikely juxtapositions – waterfalls and caves superimposed on celebrity portraits, for example. The gap between reality and representation, and between the exhilarated innocence of popular culture and postmodern irony, are underlying subjects.

All this is brought to play in the work of the younger artists here. Gerald Slota cuts up pretty sepia images, scratches their surfaces and writes on them to obscure subjects’ identities and give a sinister quality: “Boy with Balloons”, for instance, where balloon outlines on strings roughly scrawled over the faces of a party of young people suggest the hangman’s noose.

Tom Butler similarly covers, bandages, blanks out and patterns over faces in vintage portrait photographs to muse on the contradiction of artistic displays of introversion, interiority, the hidden self. Julie Cockburn confronts another paradox: her colour embroidery on kitsch black-and-white images – Hollywood actors, 1950s American high school pictures, idyllic landscapes – attempts to bring nostalgia to life.

Virginia Echeverria mixes vintage magazine fragments with coloured paper in strange sequences, delicately balancing the literal and the abstract, while Holly Roberts carves out primitivist abstracted figures from newsprint, photographs and paint. Each is a constructor as well as a deconstructor, and all are attuned to the inherent sense of loss – what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt” – within a photograph.

Until July 6,

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