Justine Varga

Justine Varga’s rigorous and ruminative photographic practice transgresses conventional notions of photography. She provokes us into reconfiguring our own understanding of the photographic act of capture, asking us to enter that conceptual space in which a photograph is made. Celebrating her current exhibition with Hugo Michell Gallery, we share Kirsty Baker's essay on the artist from Artist Profile 49.

The photograph is often considered a visual expression of a singular instant, an isolated representation of a moment in time so infinitesimal that mechanical capture is the only means of suspending it. Today, rapid photographic images proliferate exponentially, they are the currency with which we circulate our perspectives of the world: instantaneously taken, broadly disseminated.

Justine Varga subverts these commonly held beliefs. As she asks: ‘How can these works contest material, procedural and, ultimately, social expectations we take for granted?’ Her photographic objects persistently assert their physical materiality and the means by which they have come into being.

If we take for granted the notion that a photograph represents a singular moment in time, then a work such as 2011’s Desklamp steps into this suspended instant, both inhabiting and exceeding the limits of photographic exposure. For this is a photograph made, not taken, a photograph which explicitly retains the process by which it came into being. Placed upon Varga’s studio desk lamp, this large-format negative became a site for the inscription of lived time, stretching the point of exposure over the course of a year. Operating as a refusal of both photographic representation and the urgency of the instantaneous moment, Desklamp collapses the span of a year, marking an expanse of light and time upon a singular object.

The negative, scarred by the cumulative effects of its own ruination, seems, remarkably, to pulse with a milky luminescent life. Rather than destroying the negative, Varga’s act of extreme overexposure has instead brought forth a surface flecked with a profusion of textural density, its borders fringed with burnished layers of rusty pigmentation which gesture towards the surfeit of light to which it has been exposed. Desklamp operates in a manner antithetical to the speed, intangibility and profusion of digital photographic tendencies. It enacts instead an expansive recalibration of the photographic moment, operating as a subversion of photographic temporality.

Since her graduation from the National Art School in 2007, Varga’s practice has persistently interrogated the limitations of the photographic medium. Her solo exhibition, ‘Areola’, at Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide early this year, provided testament to this.

Later this year, the series will also be exhibited at New Zealand’s City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, as part of an exhibition entitled ‘News From the Sun’, curated by Aaron Lister. Traversing a range of photographic practices, the images created for ‘Areola’ were made both with, and without, a camera. Many of the photographs in this body of work exist in series, such as the four images entitled Lattice. Each of these images originate from the same photographic starting point, a single negative depicting a lightly curtained window. Each iteration of Lattice has been subject to differing manipulations, resulting in a set of images which self-consciously declare the process of their own creation. Rather than encoding naturalistic or illusionistic representations of the world around us, these photographs ruminate instead on the processes by which they have been constructed.

‘Photography is a medium,’ Varga explains, ‘but it is also an idea, a conceptual framework to work within.’ From within this framework, Varga pushes and stretches the medium’s capabilities, utilising its alchemical foundation to explore both photography itself, and other artistic media.

This expansive exploration of the medium’s tactile mutability is evident in her 2018 work Photogenic Drawing. In March of this year, this large-scale chromogenic photograph was awarded the twenty-first Dobell Drawing Prize, the first photograph to receive this prestigious biennial award. In Photogenic Drawing, Varga challenges the boundaries of both drawing and photography, through an activation of the moment of exposure. The work’s fractured, layered surface was created through the application of pigment and ink directly onto the photographic negative during its exposure, the resulting work complicating the assumed two-dimensionality of the photographic surface. A dense network of physical interventions mapped upon each other builds a tenuous sense of physical recession onto the image. Here light and pigment are interwoven as means of drawing, yet the work remains photographic.

Photogenic Drawing is part of a new body of work, ‘Tachisme’, made between 2018 and 2019, which will be exhibited in April and May 2020 in Melbourne’s Tolarno Galleries, as part of PHOTO 2020: International Festival of Photography. ‘Tachisme’ shares its name with an intuitive form of expressive abstract painting briefly popular in France in the 1940s and 50s, which takes its meaning from the root word tache, the French word for stain. The movement was characterised by a direct and spontaneous application of paint, which was often smeared, stained and dragged across the surface of the canvas. Through the prism of this title, it becomes clear that the works in this series both explore and contest the ramifications of painterly expression.

In 2018-2019’s Vicissitude, for example, the photograph’s diffuse field of colour is disrupted by gestural marks reminiscent of the indexical physicality of action painting. Smeared arcs of pigment are layered across the work’s surface, where they are punctuated by a series of whitened, scratched patches suggestive of abrasive physical contact. Harsh freehand gouges form aggressive incursions into the muted tonality of the photograph’s skin, pointing directly to the hand of the artist who made them.

Though the heroic masculinity of Abstract Expressionism has been subject to continual criticism since its inception, it is irrefutable that the mythic figure of the solitary male genius remains stubbornly persistent within the discourse of Western art. Within such a context, it is powerful to read Varga’s photographic interrogation of this painterly language as a subtly subversive one.

The autonomy of a purely painterly expression of the male psyche is here refigured by a woman as a visual and tactile language to be exploited by – and made subservient to – the photographic medium. This complex interplay of artistic language and medium, woven together with the ideological weight that they carry, is palpable throughout Varga’s practice.

Her photographic images weave an exploration of the history of both photography and art into their material surfaces, resulting in powerful, poetic images. While her photographs carry an instantaneous aesthetic appeal, it is the mesh of these slowly unravelling complexities that allow her works to contest those beliefs and constraints that we all too often, take for granted.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2019

Justine Varga: Masque
11 November – 11 December 2021
Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related