Hannah Collins’ homage to Noah Purifoy - Art Collector

Hannah Collins, installation view at Camden Art Centre, London. Photo: Mark Blower

By Emma Capps

The African­American artist Noah Purifoy began his career as a sculptor using the refuse and charred debris that were the immediate artefacts of the 1965 Watts Rebellion in South Los Angeles. These sculptures then became the basis for 66 Signs of Neon (1966), a landmark group exhibition organised as a response to the riots, which toured the United States until the early 1970s, dragging the wreckage of the turmoil from state to state. Shortly after the initial events, Thomas Pynchon described the neighborhood of Watts in The New York Times as “a country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel”.

This question of travel, of the challenge of investigation, seems a pressing consideration for British artist Hannah Collins, whose work is currently on show at the Camden Arts Centre in London and which is, in part, devoted to Purifoy’s output.

Much of Purifoy’s later work is installed permanently in the Mojave Desert, where the artist relocated for the latter part of his life, creating acres of large­scale sculptures out of old and abandoned materials. With a plate camera, Collins has photographed many of these works, which appear in a bright, pale spectrum of greys that grab the eye like the midday sun bouncing off concrete. Accompanying these images is a three­channel sound recording featuring the voices of contemporaries of Purifoy’s, including artists like Ed Ruscha, as well as key members of the Black Panther Party. As a whole, this series feels integrative in a literary or filmic way. The sound complicates the images, not through a direct explanation of their context, but rather through a gentle invitation to the viewer to spend more time amongst the works; to concentrate, to find out more for themselves. It seems courteous to the viewer’s intelligence, to expect this from them.

In his article written all those decades ago, Pynchon described how the detritus left over after the riots was, for the inhabitants of Watts, “part of their landscape, both the real and the emotional one: busted glass, busted crockery, nails, tin cans, all kinds of scrap and waste”. In these images, Collins describes this busted world of leftovers – the broken objects that have stood by, borne witness to riots, to mass outbreaks of fury. It’s a rare thing for an artist to use her gifts of observation to highlight the work of another, and it seems to be Collins’ desire to use her patient, traveller’s eye to pay Purifoy’s work a respectful depth of attention.

Hannah Collins, installation view at Camden Art Centre, London. Photo: Mark Blower

In distinct contrast to the exacting and thoughtfully established photographs of the Purifoy series, Collins’ The Fertile Forest (2013­2015), also on display, turns its focus to the vast, indifferent jungle of the Amazon basin – where framing proves pointless, and instead the edges of plants, trees, and roots continue far beyond the boundaries of the images. These are photographs that gracefully admit their fundamental lack; their approximation. They are inexact and honest.

This series is in fact a study of medicinal plants (which are sometimes held up for the camera by the Ticuna, Inga and Cofan people with whom Collins travelled), however, as Brian Dillon writes in his accompanying essay to the exhibition: “these photographs confront us with our own lack of skill and knowledge at precisely the moment they immerse us in the scene. There must be another kind of knowing, they suggest: exact but hallucinatory.” And yes, what we see in these images is the vivid and overwhelming mess of a space from which we are clearly excluded. Although, it doesn’t matter that our uninformed eyes aren’t able to read between the layers of green, these photographs are as much about the process of looking, of travelling, as they are about their subjects.

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