Reviews

Plein Air, High Plain

Photography Exhibition Review

Mark Mohell, Macdonald Nichols & Peter Ranyard | Plein Air, High Plain

M16 Artspace | Until 21 November 2021

Monaro is a Ngarigo word meaning “high plain”. And it is the Monaro that centres Mark Mohell, Macdonald Nichols and Peter Ranyard’s durational photographic exhibition, Plein Air, High Plain.

The gallery’s room sheet for this exhibition tells visitors “Their photographs investigate the dynamic forces that shape the endless, reciprocal drama that is Landscape….The exhibition is a result of numerous transversals of the Monaro that sought to consider the distinctive character of Plein Air as a productive practice. The works are conceived completely in the Monaro environment affirming its presence and the individuals within it: a physical and affective immersion.”

So, does the exhibition focus on what we would think of as the high plains of the Monaro? In my view, it focusses on the Monaro region as a whole – not just the high plains landscapes, but also places built on those plains by humans, some on the open plains, others in towns. Some of the imagery is of small details, such as a door, a card holder with a cribbage board, a jumble of cutlery, and a film processing clock. That gives this interesting exhibition a substantially broader focus than I expected.

The term Plein Air is generally used in that other artform, painting, referring to the act of painting outdoors – in contrast to studio painting or academic rules. ‘En plein air’ painting emerged from the concept by which the artist paints directly onto canvas in situ within the landscape, enabling better capture of changing weather and light. Nevertheless, it can be applied to photography as well. When photographers work outdoors using natural light and without staging anything, their captured images reflect real events and subjects in real time. I expect that is why the term is in the exhibition title. It is arguable that, when prints of images have words added to them, they cease to be strictly real. But, perhaps, that is pedantry on my part.

The works are of good quality. They vary in size and price, some framed and others not. Raynard’s works are small squares on Hahnemühle Museum Etching art paper, Mohell’s are large “archival pigment prints”. And the inkjet prints by Macdonald Nicholls range from very small to very large.

Those I found most interesting were Nichols’ prints with handwritten words. In particular I loved Dentist – although the image itself doesn’t identify the dentist’s practice, added words tell us it is upstairs above the colourful Massie Street (Cooma) seafood takeaway shop in the photo and that it has a window looking out to trees. Even better the wonderfully descriptive words tell us that the colour of pain is green, and the smell is hot chips – adding considerably to the visual image. On the other hand, his large-scale landscapes in Ngarigo Country – including one of Jounama Creek and another near Shanahans Mountain – are traditional works.

Jounama Creek, Bogong Mountains, Ngarigo Country. 2019 © Macdonald Nichols
Near Shanahans Mountain, Namadgi, Ngarigo Country, 2021 © Macdonald Nichols

Mohell features powerlines, tanks, tracks and other mundane outdoor objects in his quality works. Two landscapes, Sign and Paint, show additions made by human hands – one a road speed limit sign and posts marking the road’s edge, the other paintwork on a rock outcrop behind a fence along the road’s edge. So, they are more than straightforward landscapes.

Sign © Mark Mohell
Paint © Mark Mohell

Ranyard shows us objects, including a kettle and a flattening iron, plus chimneys, mountain huts, bridges, and much more. I recall reading some years ago that he has always been fascinated by objects, particularly those changed by weather, time, and neglect. Clearly, he is still fascinated and enjoying opportunities to interpret objects and more. Mountain Hut and Kettle are excellent black and white images.

Mountain Hut © Peter Ranyard
Pop’s Kettle, 2021 © Peter Ranyard

This review was published in the Canberra Times of 20/11/21 here and also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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