Found Paints Lane

On one of my neighbourhood walks in Chippendale Sydney with my dog Barbie in 1995 I found a 35mm slide transparency, which was to become my first exhibited found image, Found Paints Lane Chippendale (Fig. 1). Although the slide was lying in a gutter and covered by damp leaves, its white plastic border was recognisable as the 35mm slide format used to document artist’s work at the time, drawing me to pick it up. The Kodachrome-branded slide revealed a closely cropped image, with a patch of dry grass foregrounding a pathway leading into the background, up a sloping verge and out of the edge of the frame. On the right stood a woman with her hands behind her back, weight on one leg and the other slightly bent. Wearing a white bikini and white rubber thongs, her large round sunglasses had slipped down her nose to reveal her impatient expression. The woman’s features read as Asian and she had toned skin and a visible abdominal scar, perhaps from a caesarean section. Parked immediately behind the woman, facing the camera, is a dark Mini Minor car, its front wheels at an angle as if it had circled to a halt. The sun reflects brilliantly from the car’s windscreen and the woman’s chest, both surfaces over-exposed and burning out into a hot white glare.

This image led me to consider the identities of the photographer and their subject, as well as the details of their location. I wondered if someone else would recognise this location or if the scene was indeed what I had assumed it to be – a snapshot taken at an Australian beachside location on a hot summer’s day. I printed the image as a large format photograph: at over a metre wide, it was large enough to ensure that the viewer’s body remained at a distance from the work if they were to see it in its entirety. By giving this work the title Found Paints Lane Chippendale, the image’s found status would be apparent whenever the work was publicly exhibited. Making and exhibiting this first found image revealed a method by which I could include my interest in the vernacular within my work and expand upon my attraction to investigative methodologies: searching for and collecting information, digging for clues in found objects, images and places, and uncovering stories and identities. 

In 1998, this work was used as the invitation image for a group exhibition curated by Mark Hislop, Mondo Cane, at Herringbone Gallery in Sydney[1]. In his review of the exhibition, Bruce James questioned my work’s validity as ‘art’ due to the image’s ‘found’ status and its (in his view) ‘unspectacular aesthetic qualities’ . James found my work to be, ‘a piece of reality’ rather than art. While he admitted that the work lent authenticity to the idea of ‘the bower bird artist’ and vernacular subject matter, and he acknowledged the agency of exhibiting mundane or everyday images in a gallery context, James nonetheless questioned the work’s validity.

“If the show has an emblem, it’s Elvis Richardson’s nagging photograph of a woman in a tight-fitting, white bikini posed so ambivalently beside a Mini Minor that it’s hard to tell which is the trophy, and whose. Is the woman boasting the possession of a car, or her own compact body?  Is the person behind the camera boasting of both? Richardson found this image as a colour transparency a few months ago.  It was simply lying in the street, though maybe “simply” is too innocent a word. In Choosing to introduce it inter her practice, then to exhibit it here in enlarged, editioned form, she’s taken the risk that the original subject of the snapshot, or the one who napped it, might come forward to reclaim it from the public sphere.

In their position I would.  Reproduced on the postcard invitation, Found Paints Lane, Chippendale, 30/4/98 3.30pm gained wide currency around town this month.  Curiously, part of its artistic attraction is that we know it not to be art at all.  It’s a piece of reality, a none too redeeming piece at that, dislodged from the parent block and repositioned in a gallery.  In that regard, it’s representative of a magpie tendency shared by the other exhibits in Mondo Cane, and by much contemporary art.”

James’ argument raised questions concerning art’s definition, the role of the collector, and the relationship between art and the everyday – questions that were concurrently informing influential international exhibitions during that decade.

[1] Herringbone Gallery was an artist-run gallery located in Surry Hills, Sydney in the late 1990s.