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March 2009

Review of Richard Galpin Elevation at Hales Gallery

By Denna Jones

Richard Galpin photographs buildings in cities, concentrating on clusters of urban density. But where previously he rubbed, erased and over painted images, in 2001 he began to interfere directly with the fabric of the photograph. He cut areas of emulsion to create a stencil, but as he discovered how easily emulsion separates from its paper ground, he abandoned cutting to slice and excise areas in a process more akin to sculpting. He strips and exposes patterns he sees beneath the surface; reveals frameworks that no longer resemble built reality, and allows the resulting structures to float untethered, hobble on spindly tripod legs, or moor precariously on pylons anchored to bold white backgrounds.

The workers, bosses, and clients who inhabited these buildings are gone. Pedestrians and landmarks have vanished. Instead, underneath the removed areas of emulsion or "epidermis", the sensitive connective tissue is laid bare and vulnerable like so much financial exposure. The city's raw nerve endings and sweat glands there for all to see.

Before Galpin began to lay serious siege to cities with his scalpel, his earlier sliced and sculpted city photographs were more measured, lower density images. These earlier works retain elements of a stencil. As he cut the photo away, small joins or ties were left behind to anchor each section to the whole and establish the final pattern. The ties work in much the same way architectural tie-rods stabilise buildings by holding elevations in secure tension.

His newer "cluster works" have blocks of surface area that follow the photograph's original perspective, but the connecting ties between blocks are intentionally misleading. Since the starting point for Galpin is always his photograph, its worth remembering what Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 book "On Photography" – that a photograph is not simply an image and an interpretation of reality, it is a something directly stencilled off the real. Though Galpin's works aren't stencils, they are his interpretation of "the real".

The work of American artist Gordon Matta-Clark does not consciously influence Galpin, but there is an undeniable connection between the two. Galpin's technique and his 2D structures mirror elements of Matta-Clark's 3D "building cuts". Matta-Clark's source material was the thousands of abandoned buildings that littered many US cities during the 1970s decline in inner city settlements. He cut and removed sections of elevations, floors and interior walls, leaving sufficient "tie" areas to keep the building standing.

His deconstructions were less about perceived building flaws (Charles Abrams began his 1971 glossary "The Language of Cities" with "abandonment" and noted that many abandoned buildings were structurally sound), and more critique of social and political issues. Galpin welcomes multiple interpretations of his work, and this invitation allows us to read his deconstructions as something other than what the structures may at first appear to be saying.

The City of London's financial "Square Mile", Manchester, Chicago and New York City are among the urban centres that have been reverse engineered by Galpin from expansive, solid photographs to fractured parables of urban development and decline.

The works in the Hales Gallery exhibition are the legatees of Matta-Clark's 1970s urban blight. His cities of urban abandonment have evolved into Galpin's 21st century metropolises blighted by deficit finances, punished by Ponzi schemes, and asset stripped to rickety frameworks. But tempting as it is to decode Galpin's works as though they are financial Rosetta stones capable of explaining how UK plc (and the US) got into its current fiscal mess, Galpin's view is more prosaic, less conspiracy theory.

"I wanted to work with colours and textures and to play with perspective and exposed areas. The logic of what I remove or leave behind is increasingly ambiguous and complex." Galpin makes no claim to link his forms to the crisis of cities, but he doesn't deny his works have become progressively darker. His latest works include intentional glimpses into other dimensions. Although he has always left original solid forms in the finished piece, he now leaves behind bits of windows or reflections.

What we see or think we can see in these small areas of reveal are what contribute to a dystopian atmosphere. Galpin invites us to see transition, deconstruction and reconstruction, and like Matta-Clark's reworking of abandoned buildings, his process is aggressive but the outcome less so.

Sontag said photographs are a thin slice of space as well as time. The slices and fractures of Galpin's newest works are anonymous and immersive and project a feeling of unease, something many of us believe is relevant to our time. The city as we knew it is no more. Time to reconstruct our cities and our lives in entirely new ways. We are all survivalists. Building our New Jerusalem starts now.

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