Label from Museo Patologico
Chromogenic Print, 183 x 122cm (6 x 4ft), Edition of 1. 1998. Collection of the Artist.

Still Life: Gallery of Photography
James Armstrong

In this particular moment of contemporary visual history there exists a calculated preoccupation with authentic biology. The presentation of specimens or the invention of genetic metaphors invites us to contemplate nature and its denominator; mortality, in a somehow new or heightened manner. Shock, sensation, horror or any number of cinematic headings classifies these rarefied ventures into the super-real theatre of the millennium mind.

Karl Grimes' Still Life at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, is a documentation of malformations (natal abnormalities) from the turn of the century. Collections of this sort have existed primarily for scientific research in the medical community. The only place where they could be bottled, displayed, and contemplated without the hysteria or sideshow exploitation that precipitates glimpses of nature's most unnatural matrix. The child: bastion of innocence, heterosexuality's immaculate claim to god-like normality, the hope of all that is perfect and coming. Here, a graphic variation on a genetic theme. Recent science has rendered these astounding aberrations as almost obsolete in all technological societies. Historically, these repeated manifestations worldwide and cross culturally have given us a lexicon of self-loathing. Mothers dying at childbirth, punishments from God, inauspicious omens and journeys through the dark to a tent where we can see what we have never seen before. How does one look into this mirror? Is pictorial beauty relevant?

The honesty an artist uses to validate a chosen contextual image and how he brings his audience into that proposed realm of experience is pivotal in our acceptance of symbols in the late twentieth century. What are we looking at? Why are we looking at it? How do we reinterpret and utilise that which we have already seen or know already exists? Resentment and manipulation; are some things best left unseen?

Grimes stares into a collection of hidden art works a hundred years after the fact, another turn of a century, post Barnum & Bailey, post Hirst and still no one can look. These beings have outlived their makers. Their re-emergence into the present era is fraught with many metaphors, some scientific, and some ethical. They bring with them universally archaic paradigms. Bottles with labels, each with a Latin classification, conditions of the spirit, cellular articulations, fleshy ghosts; these images are specimen smart and time wise.

Emotional response is at the heart of artistic creation and observation. In the glow of an arsenal of conceptual footlights, what we feel if the visual pun works, makes for a good show. Animals hang suspended or are enshrined in department store display cases, post-modernistic taxidermists make statements on the object-specific perfection of nature, pre-pubescent Siamese mannequins with genital mouths, scatological performance, portraits of homicidal pederasts; all of these abstractions still buffer us from the real. A mutant baby in a bottle : alarm.

Grimes' photographs confront us with directness rare in contemporary image making. His use of color gives these phantoms a tender life within their glass containers. An amazing photographic eye elevates each image out of the realm of simple scientific documentation into a sometimes macabre but lyric gesturing. Laboratory equals gallery. These works are powerful, often without apology; an observation of Nature's other side.

Still Life was first exhibited as part of Fotofeis 97 at the Maclaurin Gallery, Ayr, Scotland. Public reaction was immediate and resulted in widespread radio and television coverage. Shut down for three days because of the controversy surrounding the images, it reopened following the intervention of curator Mike Bailey and the Scottish Arts Council. Grimes has spent the last few years working and exhibiting in New York City. Science and medicine figure prominently in his photographs. Colored grids like advertisements for enigmatic petry dishes, dolls' heads washed up on eastern Irish shores from Britain, cotton swabs with the blood of dying friends, pharmaceuticals and medical candy, natural history simulacrum, and now Still Life, each distinct, stylistically separate and in continuum.

James Armstrong is a New York artist/writer based in Dublin.
Reproduced from Source Magazine, Vol 4, No 4, Spring 1998.

Schildrick, Margrit .'Touching the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self'. Sage. London. 2001

Ruane, Medb. 'In Conversation'. Still Life exhibition catalogue interview.

Marion McKeone, THE SUNDAY BUSINESS POST, March 29, 1998

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