Switches and Other Works
The art of Stephen Monger enchants. Monger makes art-about-art that transcends all the miserable culturally self-referential conceits of the more theoretically self-conscious factions of the contemporary art world. The overall atmosphere of his photo-fine-art is one of uncertainty, ambiguity, ambivalence. Monger challenges cultural conventions and assumptions. He presents clever questions about what is art and what is not, indeed about what is real and what is not. The enduringly convincing techniques of photographic documentary are set against the profoundly fanciful inventions of abstract painting and assemblage sculpture. His subject matter ranges from the shamanic rituals of prehistoric cave painting, through the immaculate aesthetic idealism of Graeco-Roman classical sculpture, to the provocative installations of found-object consumer detritus so common in the converted post-industrial warehouse galleries of today. Yet he does all of this with a sense of mischief, of fun and of wonderment. His work is the opposite of that of spoil-sport contemporary artists, so prevalent in the photo-art world, who cannot make a creative move without first establishing a sober minded theoretical justification, elucidated in currently acceptable academic diligence. But, above all, it is exceptional work in its contagious sense of enigmatic delight.
The title of this exhibition refers to ‘Switches’, a particularly sardonic work which shows a gallery wall hung with one single framed image of electric light switches. The work plays on the perennial predicament of the contemporary art gallery visitor of being uncertain about what constitutes the art and what is in fact just a practical gallery fixture. But the word ‘switches’ cam also refer to the activity of often rather secretive or underhand exchanges of one object for another. The magic of Monger’s art lies in his expertise in conjuring cultural disorientations. He will take cultural objects from widely divergent historical periods, or from traditionally mutually exclusive genres, and switch them around, framing one within the conventions of another. The wall of his ‘Studio’ is scrawled with images of prehistoric wildlife and the calendar scratchings of a long term prison inmate. The polythene packaging of his paintings and the plywood cubes of his sculpture plinths are more foregrounded than the paintings and sculptures themselves. In addition to the light switches, the gallery fire extinguishers and the pipes of the gallery plumbing are highlighted for cultural consideration. Monger uses framing devises (both those of the gallery frame and those of the camera lens) with great sensitivity. One is left bewildered about what one is supposed to be looking at. Is the real thing, the culturally significant thing, that which is within the frame or that which is without? Are these photographs records of artworks or are they artworks themselves? Is the dream more real than the reality? Ultimately is the reality just another cultural construct, or cultural dream? These are matters that are wrestled with in the most advanced of art theory thinking. Monger embodies such matters of deceptive iconographic simplicity.
But there is one more switch that Monger makes that causes surprise and delight. His studio museum and gallery spaces look somehow strange, somehow unreal or more real than real. It may take some viewers some time to realise that what they are viewing is a made-up reality, is make-believe, is a miniature theatre of cultural illusions. Monger’s subjects are meticulously handcrafted and set up in his studio before being lit and photographed to create a life-size impression. Monger has stated that he ‘makes’ photographs rather than ‘takes’ them. ‘The use of models has become a more immediate way for me to realise a work in the studio, rather than a way to trick the viewer. The work is not about trickery, but I do enjoy the certainty that people feel’ he writes. Indeed the work is not mere trickery or gimmickry. The illuminating effect of Monger’s imaginative switchings of cultural constrictions is the opening up of spatial poetry.
Catalogue essay for Switches, imagoLucis Fotogaleria, Porto, Portugal, 2003