John Hilliard, Not Black And White, at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

12 September 2014 By

This week’s Dispatch is an urgent call out to all those serious collectors of photography who have not yet seen the current exhibition at Richard Saltoun’s gallery, just an aerodynamic stone’s throw from Oxford Circus. John Hilliard has not had a solo show in London since 2000, so this is a rare opportunity to see a substantial body of work spanning a 40-year career that began in the mid 1970s when Hilliard was an important figure within the group of conceptual artists exploring photography through its mechanical process as well as the materiality of the final print. The connections that can be drawn between Hilliard’s work and contemporary photographic practice are fascinating.  The selection of works has been made by Duncan Wooldridge, who has also contributed an essay in the monograph just published by Ridinghouse.

Hilliard’s photographs are layered, subtle and complex. Attempting to describe what is going on in them feels rather like killing a good joke stone dead by explaining it. The point is: you have to be there. Hilliard’s use of colour is heart-stoppingly wonderful: in work after work the visual conundrums are rendered with such deftness and emphasis on glorious, saturated colours, they effortlessly draw you in to explore the conceptual intricacies. It is intensely rewarding. Four Faces of Green, 2003, for example, superimposes multiple images of the same wrapped box, producing an abstract image of such translucency that you wonder if you are looking at a lightbox instead of a print.

The earliest works in the show are two diptychs from 1974: White Expanse and Black Depths. Betraying the connections between conceptual art, photography and land art of the period, both works treat the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, and produce geometrical abstractions from them that neatly announce the concern that has preoccupied Hilliard throughout the four decades of his career. Geometric elements recur again and again through the work, disrupting the representational function of photographs, obscuring narrative, confounding the eye and our assumptions about what we are looking at.

Photography as a practice and as a medium is given a thorough workout here: “snaps” these are most emphatically not. The title of the show – Not Black and White – is typically witty: neither are the photographs black and white, nor is the whole matter of photography itself as straightforward as one might imagine.

Go and see. Please.

Caroline Douglas

Richard Saltoun Gallery, 111 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 6RY. Open Monday – Friday 10am – 6pm, until 9 October 2014