Polly Borland at the Centre for Contemporary Photography

The portrait photography of Melbourne-born artist Polly Borland is notorious, in the finest sense of the word, for celebrating oddity and rejecting the constraints of what is ‘normal’. This is the artist who thought it would be best to photograph Nick Cave in a sequined party frock and blue wig; the artist who captured on film the ostensibly deviant behaviour of a group of adults and ennobled it by displaying their activities on elegant gallery walls; the artist who positioned the Queen in front of a kitschy glitter background and asked her, in so many words, to smile. Yet in a new exhibition of her work, Wonky, at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Borland consigns the human form to the periphery and instead relies on a set of abstract motifs to foreground the peculiarities of humans and the conventions they create.

For several years, Borland has used stockings (or pantyhose) in her works as a means of de-featuring the faces of her models, a method that emerged, according to the artist, “almost by accident.” She likens this process to the devices of a painter – “the stocking creates a blank canvas where I can place my own eyes, my own mouth on someone’s face.” In her previous series – Bunny (2008), Smudge (2010) and Pupa (2012) – the artist replaced the features of, for example, cultural icon Nick Cave and the famously beautiful model-actress Liberty Ross with a smeared lipstick mouth and splodge eyes. She also used whole-body stockings to envelope her models, thereby, as she notes, “turning real people into dolls”. For Borland, this process introduces a nostalgic tone to her work, recalling the dolls she had as a child. For the viewer, however, Borland’s living dolls are perhaps more suggestive of the lurid or dreadful characters of the phantasmagoria.

In referencing eroticism and intimate apparel in her practice, Borland was influenced by the Surrealist artist Pierre Molinier (1900-76) and the former Young British Artist (YBA) Sarah Lucas (born 1960). However, while Molinier strove to achieve a merciless shock factor in his examination of sexuality, Borland’s portrayals are more playful and far more enigmatic than Molinier’s BDSM cavalcade. Similarities to the work of Sarah Lucas can be found in the two artists’ shared interest in feminist discourse and their common experiences as contemporary, female artists.

In the new exhibition at CCP, Borland continues to use stockings in her photography, this time to create abstract sculptural forms, rather than human dolls. For the most part, these illustrative configurations of stuffed stocking-socks are less initially alarming than her fantastical, anthropomorphised human studies. They appear spongy, textural, homemade, and, owing to both the repeated neutral tones and the rounded shapes, unmistakably fleshy. She began creating these soft sculptures for the earlier series Pupa, at which point she had relocated to LA and found herself a few models short of a shoot. “Stockings became symbols of human forms,” says Borland. For Wonky, however, the soft forms have evolved beyond their initial purpose as human stand-ins, serving instead as formulaic building blocks in a series of abstract representations, not wholly unlike the simplified forms used by the Cubists. Tan, black, red and blue bundles are arranged to portray items or scenes within her polished photographs (all captured using film).

While the continued use of stockings in the new exhibition brings to mind issues of femininity and beauty consumerism, the principal inspiration for Wonky is Museum Victoria’s Psychiatric Services Collection, which comprises around 1600 items taken from closed mental health institutions, ranging from dolls made by patients to electroconvulsive therapy apparatus. This collection is described by Dr Nurin Veis of Museum Victoria as “confronting, representing the physical and psychological world of mental illness.” Borland uses her soft building blocks to re-imagine the Museum’s collection in her photography. Here we see, in one work, a golliwog, with all of its distasteful associations and, in another image, the jaunty blue and green pattern of a patient’s nightie. In the exhibition, her finished works are displayed alongside a selection of documentary pictures she took of the items in the collection.

In Wonky VI (2013), Borland imagines from scratch a patient’s room composed of, quite simply, a square outline made of black bundles (four walls), inside of which is one white bundle (nurse) and one smaller pink bundle (patient). What might seem, at first, to be an aesthetic exercise is, upon learning of the imagery enclosed, transformed into a melancholy and macabre study of power and control, society and individuality, normality and abnormality. Such dichotomies extend across Borland’s career thus far.

The current exhibition at CCP is staged alongside a companion exhibition at Melbourne’s Murray White Room, the gallery that represents Polly Borland in Australia. It also coincides with the launch of You (2013), a swanky little book of the artist’s recent work published by Perimeter Editions. On display in both of the exhibitions is a figural work from her earlier series, Pupa. The distorted female form portrayed in these two photographs looks out over the abstract images in the new series. Yet, owing to the shared colours in the exhibitions, it appears that the figure has simultaneously been pulled apart to create the new works. Here we find an indication of the unifying properties of Borland’s multiple series. As the artist herself notes, “all of my work is interconnected.”


Polly Borland: Wonky shows at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, 404 George St, Fitzroy, until May 25.



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