January 20, 2022

Cast- a study in light and shadows

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By Christopher Tobutt

If we lived in a world where all we ever saw were shadows we would soon come to regard the shadow as the thing itself. Living all our lives in such a world we might be startled and a little afraid when someone introduced us to the objects that had made them. Yet, in a way, we do live in a world of shadows. As babies, our eyes open to the world of light and dark and color early, but it is a slow process to attribute meaning to the random patterns caused by photons reacting with the light-sensitive cells of our retinas. The image we have is not of the real world. For one thing, it is upside down – as all images focused on surfaces using a single lens are. Our brains learn to turn things the right way up, to piece together the cadences of light and darkness as we distinguish good objects from bad objects and form emotional attachments to things.

Artists, along with physicists, perhaps, are the two groups of people who understand the true nature of images, trained as they are to think in terms of different intensities of light. Little wonder, then that an experienced and accomplished artist such as Avril Ward who has explored light in her paintings and form in her sculptures has decided to turn her attention, and her camera, on shadows. Her exhibition entitled ‘Cast, a Study in Light and Shadows’ runs at the National Gallery’s Dart Auditorium until November 28.

Her exhibition is exciting because it puts the forms of light on the same footing as the forms of darkness, and forces us to think in terms of the forms themselves, and rather than according to the artificial labels we have attached to things through our addiction to ‘trying to make sense’ of them. Upon seeing her vivid and sometimes stark photographs of shadows making shapes on different surfaces, we soon stop trying to find out what object made the shadow, and revel in the joy of seeing pure forms as valuable entities in their own right.

All the photographs – taken straight out of a standard Canon digital SLR camera and simply de-colorized, were taken after her recent trip to South Africa where, she says, the brilliant and intense sunlight falling through dry air makes a particularly intense brand of shadow. “Most of them were taken in March this year ….I was up early and I was fascinated with the light and shadow” she said.

We see the shadow, but we are also presented with the surface it lives on, whether an animal skin, a concrete wall, or a piece of wood. So we see the two as one form, a new amalgam of light and dark, a composite texture. Once again, we look, startled, with a babies’ eyes and see the world afresh.

“I don’t consider myself a photographer, I am merely using photography as a medium for my expression for this exhibition” Ward says.

Ward chose to print the photos on translucent paper. “ The saturation by the ink on the paper and the translucency highlighting the soft edges, really capture what I feel I saw in the lens of the camera- shadow are real but yet transient too.” Besides from converting images to black and white and cropping to get a good composition, no other digital enhancements have been made to the images. “I wanted to show my raw observation of the shadows rather than impose what I think would be artistic. Nature is art,” she said.

Pointing to the photograph of a heart shape suspended from a string, and the vivid black shadow it casts on the wall behind it, Ms Ward comments: “Men like this one because of the dagger (the foreshortened shadow of the heart). No woman has yet noticed this, I find this very interesting as only men see it.”

But such symbolism isn’t at the heart of this exhibition; it is merely the byproduct of it. This isn’t about the party-game shadows cast on walls looking like birds and snakes and people, it’s about forms of light juxtaposed with darkness. It’s valuable because it makes us think rethink the reality of our perceptions. Shadows are not things. They are, in fact nothing at all, – not even light. They are weightless, two-dimensional specters that haunt and fascinate us, telling us both of our own world, and also, perhaps, of the world that lives alongside our own.

IMAGES: by Christopher Tobutt

1)     Entitled: skin

2)     Bicycle

3)     Ground cover

4)     Paving

7)     Avril talking about her work

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