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Fantom, Photographic Quarterly, Issue 05. Autumn 2010

Richard Galpin - Fragmented Finishes

By Michele Robecchi

In the history of modern art the greatest proliferation of artist's writings was during the advent of abstract art. The reason for this is simple. The new art was so radically unlike any expressive form known until then that it became a matter of urgency to give it an identity of its own and to explain the solid theoretical structure behind the apparent jumble of shapes and colours.

A strong indication of how abstraction could be connected to reality was provided by Piet Mondrian when he moved to the United States at the beginning of the 40s and painted, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942), a stylised portrait of New York infused by his love of Jazz

Characterized by a squared geometrical composition and the use of stark colours, Mondrian's painting captured the flow of traffic and the lights of Manhattan without abandoning the cornerstones on which his art was founded. As Robert Hughes once wrote, after Broadway Boogie Woogie, observing the road network of a city from the top of a skyscraper would never be the same again.(1)

In the light of these events it's hardly surprising that Richard Galpin's first steps into the art world would happen through theory. In his dissertation Erasure in Art (2), he demonstrates how the partial removal of an object can add something to the way it's perceived. This is a principle that finds its most illustrious examples in ancient Greek sculpture, and which has subsequently generated a flood of theories about the subconscious meaning of erasing and the fact that, paradoxically, destruction often generates conservation.

Galpin began to explore this area in 1997, working mainly on removing text from books and newspapers and painting over other artists' works. As he now acknowledges himself, these were simple conceptual gestures which find parallels in other artists' practices, but were necessary in order for him to find his own form of expression. The turning point came in 2001, when he realised that by using a scalpel on a photographic print it was possible to remove the picture without destroying the paper it was printed on.

Galpin's early erased photographs mainly drew on the urban landscape of South London, where he lived, featuring recognizable details such as windows, signs and silhouettes of cars. His range of subjects expanded alongside an evolving development in style.

Galpin was concerned to ensure that each piece was part of his general discourse, in order to maintain a degree of continuity, rather than dividing the work into separate series dedicated to a single location. Where he was less familiar with a particular place, greater care was required to establish which architectonic elements to retain without making the city in question too recognizable.

In time, Galpin's compositions started to become more abstract. By cutting out forms which were not present in the original photo, he introduced unexpected implications in terms of perspective. On close inspection, the emerging structures recall a more dynamic version of the geometries of Russian Constructivism or British Vorticism.

Galpin is keen to emphasise that his work is empirically based on something that was there before. "There are always elements in the finished work that faithfully follow the original photograph. If I'd started to collage, the light, the colour palette, everything would be different. You would see that immediately".

One of the motivations behind this technical approach can be found in the very qualities and flaws of photography, which has the power to freeze a moment that is anything but definitive. From a strictly literal point of view, Galpin's cities might offer only a partial view of their geography, but in their departure from the limitations of photography they also present a more complete vision of their subject.

This aspect is even more evident in recent works. The sense of disorientation typical of those who encounter an intricate urban scenario is now accentuated by an increasingly prominent abstraction. The search for familiar elements becomes almost a necessity. The general feeling now is of an elusive and pulsating reality which challenges the limits dictated by two-dimensionality and is manifested in a configuration now fully emancipated from Mondrian's principles of isolation and simplification of form.

Galpin has recently begun to experiment with animation. Still in an embryonic phase, this new cycle was generated by a desire to see if different renderings of the very same subject can coexist within the work, and is further proof of the artist's wish to continue to investigate the potential of his technique.

It also casts a further light on how Galpin envisages his use of the scalpel, and explains why although his gesture resembles the expressions of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Lucio Fontana, it does not claim to have the same destructive or liberating qualities. "It's deconstructive and reconstructive at the same time. Something is breaking down, something is reforming, which is something cities themselves do constantly".

In chemistry as in art, the notion of order and disorder differs from our habitual understanding of what they are; Galpin's fragmented images perfectly reflect the transitory dimension of the world that surrounds us.

1. Robert Hughes, The Shock of The New, Thames & Hudson, 1980.
2. See Richard Galpin, Erasure in Art: Destruction, Deconstruction, and Palimpsest, 1998. (

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