The Copperhouse Gallery, Dublin
13 March – 3 April
Secluded down a quiet laneway off Synge Street, Dublin the ‘Copper House’ is wrapped in thin sheets of the eponymous metal, an eccentric cladding for an otherwise nondescript industrial block. The two- storey structure houses a photographic studio and digital printing service with a ground floor gallery offering a showcase for the company’s output. This immaculate exhibition space provides a pristine air for the 16 colour photographs that make up Richard Gilligan’s exhibition, ‘DIY’.
Gilligan is a commercial photographer who also pursues more personal projects. As a skateboarder, he has travelled widely in Europe and America photographing skateboarders and the unofficial, cobbled together skateparks that they build. The small (42.5x51cm) and medium (79x96cm) sized photographs are simply mounted and framed without glass. The exhibition combines images of the gerry-built parks themselves (including an occasional skater or two) and shots of individual skaters taken in or around these locations. There is little or no action as such and, contrary to expectation, barely a single skateboard in evidence.
A spirit of gung-ho optimism may be synonymous with ‘DIY’ but in Gilligan’s exhibition title the term becomes more nuanced. His portraits of lone figures and isolated parks suggest that doing it yourself may also mean doing it by yourself, when you move away from the conventions that govern elsewhere. Munich, Germany depicts a hooded figure in the shadows of a darkened space. Standing pensively in a shaft of light, he’s like a backstage actor waiting for his cue. In New Orleans, USA a young boy leans forward with arms on hips. He seems oblivious to his surroundings, his downward gaze ignoring the blurry edifice behind him and the weedy verge delineating his concrete patch.
All the photographs are titled after their locations: Brooklyn, USA, Liverpool, UK. But despite these varied locales the pictures reveal a common topography, a similar landscape of dead-ends, underpasses and vacant lots – a sort of Esperanto hinterland where the useful and the useless intersect.
In Warsaw, Poland a cultivated slope sweeps down to a rectangle of grey concrete, marked here and there by low platforms and ramps. A group of tiny figures is dwarfed by a row of tower blocks behind, standing like sentinels with so many eyes. The light is eerily even, lending everything an equal status under the cloudy expanse above. I was reminded of Pieter Bruegel’s painting, Hunters in the Snow, and how, viewed from an elevated vantage point, his silhouetted ice-skaters draw your eye into the distant valley and a sense of the intimate life there. Gilligan’s skateboarders seem more remote, frozen by the camera on the edge of an indifferent metropolis.
The photographer’s view is oblique, taking in tangential spaces and the incidental moments around events. In Philadelphia, USA two young women sit cross-legged on a hard slope. Beside them a curve of blue concrete marks the rim of a skateboarding ‘bowl’. Though together, the women seem alone in their thoughts. There’s a darkness on the edge of town, or a twilight at least, an atmosphere of pensive separation hovering over the off-piste terrain. In the distance a road sign glows orange, lit by electricity or by the dying rays of the sun.
One of the pleasures of the exhibition is to see how the dips and pours of these temporary playgrounds can soften the hard edges of urban infrastructure. Gilligan notices how ramps can resemble natural features. In Memphis, USA the picture is dissected by a rain-soaked wall. Behind the wall a line of telegraph poles gives measure to the watery sky. In the open space in front there is a single white ramp, its undulating mass like a snowdrift melting into the ground.
Skateparks that colonise neglected space can themselves become neglected. In Derry, Northern Ireland a scrubby field is bordered by conifers and a broken fence. A wooden ramp appears abandoned in a gap between the trees. Whatever energy was here has now gone, the bucolic and the alcoholic mingled in a scrubland of discarded beer cans.
At the turn of the millennium Shaun Gladwell’s Storm Sequence (a slow-motion video of a skateboarder (himself) spinning on the edge of a rain-lashed pier) proved that you could make art by combining boyhood enthusiasms with notions of the romantic sublime. The ‘street’ and its vernaculars are by no means strangers to art (and I’m not talking about Banksy) with photographers in particular frequently finding treasures there. Another millennial work, the sequence Heads by the American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, renders ordinary pedestrians monumental by ingenious lighting techniques. Gilligan’s photographs don’t have the dramatic impact of these examples, but they have something of their mixture of insouciance and conviction.
Serving as an anomaly in a set otherwise focused on the outside, a second image titled Munich, Germany shows a skatepark tucked inside a barnlike structure. A cropped view makes a powerful arrangement of black and brown interlocking shapes. An area of pale concrete scooped out from the surrounding level completes the abstract composition. The picture’s formal qualities made me think of George Braque, particularly his ‘Atelier’ paintings and their symbolic birds, locked into the painted surface but not bound to it. Already in its second edition print run, a handsome volume, also titled DIY, offers a fuller spectrum of these quietly engaging photographs.
John Graham is an artist based in Dublin.