Feature Winter 2018

Style with substance

Film still from Alex Plumb’s Rosario, 2017, single-channel HD video. Images courtesy of the artist

Alex Plumb uses saturated colour and luxuriant imagery to capture the familiar, the strange and the imaginary.
Kriselle Baker reports.

Alex Plumb, winner of this year’s Auckland Festival of Photography Annual Commission, recalls seeing the work of influential American photographer Gregory Crewdson. When In a Lonely Place was on at City Gallery Wellington in 2013, the young New Zealand/Bolivian artist spent hours at the gallery, scrutinising Crewdson’s filmic tableaux, absorbing his technique (his use of light and colour) and the overriding sense of isolation that distinguishes Crewdon’s images. Crewdson’s photographs add much to his acknowledged influences, the uneasy suburbia of Edward Hopper and the psychological intensity of films by directors such as David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock.

What Plumb has chosen to carry through to his own work from Crewdson and other artists and filmmakers he admires (including Todd Haynes, one of the pioneers of New Queer Cinema and Darren Aronofsky, renowned for his surrealist films), is the intensely saturated image, both in terms of pigment and emotional content, including a portrayal of the individual outside society in a physically and mentally ‘lonely place’. Plumb also brings other elements to his work that pull it in different directions: a touch of levity, a preoccupation with desire 
and masculinity, an obsession with high camp and a delight in absurdity. His images also reveal and reflect his interest in the richness and beauty of the world of fashion; returning to his influences might mean spending time at a gallery, repeatedly watching a favourite film but also, particularly before a shoot, immersing himself in his vast collection of fashion magazines.

Film and fashion have long been comfortable bedfellows. The lure of fashion for filmmakers and artists like Plumb is in its luxury and invention, the glamour, the seductive power it wields. But Plumb is aware that style must always serve substance, so that the look and feel of the image becomes inseparable from the storytelling.

The video work, Rosario (shown this year at Pah Homestead, TSB Wallace Arts Centre, depicts a conflict of generations, which is heightened by the contrast between traditional Bolivian dress, and the flamboyant stage makeup of a drag queen.

Film still from Alex Plumb’s Rosario, 2017

Rosario was shot in 2016 over a period of two weeks in Bolivia when Plumb was visiting friends and family. From scenes in and of a modern shopping mall we move to a living room where a woman in traditional costume of exquisite blue, rocks gently in her chair, beaming at the camera. Bolivian television or a radio plays in the background. From here the camera moves from one apartment to another. The colours are luscious and extravagant, the people are elderly and young. The multiple scenes accumulate, pointing to a disjuncture between an old world of tradition and a younger generation, with different social expectations and sexual mores.

Yet to some extent the young are still bound by religion. An image of the Virgin Mary is followed by a shot of the bright red lips of a young man, his lover or his friend lolling in the background. A girl is seen alternately smoking and praying in a courtyard. Every scene is perfectly composed and while the narrative is familiar, Plumb manages to present this generational conflict, which is repeated in successive generations, in a fresh and visually luxurious way. The richness of the costuming and makeup almost single-handedly tells the story. The final image, my favourite, is of a blonde, heavily made-up Madonna in tennis shoes, simultaneously beautiful and absurd.

Film still from Alex Plumb’s Rosario, 2017

After graduating from Auckland University of Technology in Visual Arts in 2014, Plumb moved from still photography to multi-channel video works, exploring the elements of movement and sound that video makes possible. Beginning with a single moving element across multiple screens, as in works like Ivy Blue (2014) and Havana Green (2014) (characterised by a flicker of light, a simple camera movement or repeated gesture) he has since produced work with a full cast of actors.

Dialogue takes precedence in his latest video work, 
The Luring (2017), but sound continues to play a crucial role; not only ambient sound but a mutlitude of other incongruous sounds. The soundscape, Plumb says, is like a mise en scène in which he can build layers of tension. These elements of sound can be oddly unsettling, like the sound of flies buzzing, the background noise of a television or offscreen laughter, or the continuous ‘snip’ of a pair of hedgeclippers.

Film stills from Alex Plumb’s The Luring, 2017, single-channel HD video. Images courtesy of the artist

The Luring also features a young man sitting on a maroon velvet couch beneath a Dick Frizzell painting of a lamb being slaughtered, with a McCahon-like arc of blood hitting the shirt of a boy. The off-camera voice of an older man asks searching questions of the man on the couch, such as his age, where he lives and whether he likes to have fun. The young man seems nervous but excited. As the interview progresses it is unclear why he is there. It is not until later, in another of the three interconnecting scenarios, that we learn he was auditioning for some kind of erotic performance.

The Luring is composed of three loosely connected stories, each of which is like a small section of a larger narrative, as if the viewer has arrived part-way through a scene. The viewer is suspended between glimpses of some unknowable event or emotional crisis playing out on screen, and our own interpretation of what the larger story might be.

These short interrupted scenes create a desire for some form of conclusion. The feeling is of entering a room charged with emotion but then being hastily ushered away, our curiosity and voyeurism unfulfilled. Each of the characters we have witnessed is connected but isolated. We assume during the course of events their fantasties are acted out and their desires realised. There is a sense of moving from innocence to knowing, but we don’t know what the emotional cost of that will be.

The Luring has been shown in Official Selection at multiple film festivals in 2017 including Venice Film Week, Barcelona International Film Festival, Aesthetica Short Film Festival UK and Auckland International Film Festival.

Alex Plumb’s Auckland Festival of Photography Commission will be shown at Silo 6, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland from 
31 May to 22 June.

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