Keith Arnatt: The Photographers' Gallery

By Schwabsky, Barry | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Keith Arnatt: The Photographers' Gallery


Schwabsky, Barry, Artforum International


"I'm a Real Photographer" trumpets the title of this first survey exhibition by Keith Arnatt. Presumably we are meant to see this as a proud assertion of identity by a man who started the '60s as a painter and entered the next decade as one of Britain's best-known Conceptual artists (participating in such shows as "Information" at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1970 and "The New Art" at London's Hayward Gallery in 1972) yet in 1973 decided to bid farewell to all that. "Would you help me to become a photographer?" the already forty-three-year-old artist asked David Hurn, then a teaching colleague at Newport College of Art in Wales and now the curator of this exhibition.

Despite his change of medium more than three decades ago, Arnatt's best-known work remains his 1972 Trouser--Word Piece, the one remnant of his Conceptual career allowed past the threshold of the Photographers' Gallery. A photograph of the artist holding a placard emblazoned with the words I'M A REAL ARTIST, it was originally juxtaposed with a text taken from philosopher J. L. Austin's Sense and Sensibilia (1964), exposing the indeterminacy of the meaning of the word real. If much of Arnatt's conceptual work was wittily bound up with the epistemological uncertainty of art--and of being an artist--his present insistence on the word real signals that today he is in a similarly productive quandary about photography and what it means to be a photographer.

Still, Arnatt has continued to work conceptually in the sense that he has always used predetermined schemata to pursue an investigation of the activity of picture making. In his black-and-white work of the '70s, however, the concept can be too understated, too elusive--few viewers of the 1976-79 series "Walking the Dog" would easily recognize that his concern was how to get a dog to look at the camera so that it would appear, impossibly, to be "posing" in the same sense as its human companion. Instead, the pictures come off looking like an affectionately wry portrayal of British identity, something halfway between Mass Observation and Martin Parr by way of August Sander. …

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