I’m a Real Photographer Keith Arnatt Photographs 1974 -2002 by David Hurn and Claire Grafik
Boycotting all galleries and exhibitions for Frieze week, but looking at a book instead. A while ago I went over to the Serpentine with the intention of looking at a show, but it was in between times and there was only the pavilion/coffee shop and the bookshop open. We looked at the pavilion and Mrs Eyeball talked at (slightly unnecessary) length to the young guys who had been curating the Marina Abramovic show. The one where she just looked at attendees and whispered in their ears. I was only half listening, although apparently it changed some people’s lives. Another one I missed. I went to the bookshop instead and was rummaging around in there and found a treasure.
I’m a Real Photographer is a survey of Keith Arnatt’s work. Previously I had only really known Arnatt’s iconic Self Burial from 1969. This is one of the most wonderful of all late 20th Century works for me – it encapsulates the contrast between making an egotistic work of art and being naturally self-effacing. Literally self-effacing in this case. Its simple deadpan delivery is so strong against all the falsely dramatised narratives that we encounter in film, tv and more ‘expressive’ art. The simple sequence of photographs documenting the narrative – tragic but also hilarious.
I looked for other work by him for a while and found very little until I found this book. It turns out that his work as a photographer was incredibly varied. Sometimes art just speaks to you and no effort is involved on your part and that is how I felt when I found this book. There are crazy pictures in here, of old rubbish tips, cows, portraits of people with their dogs, dog excrement, toys… yet there is a collective and poignant humanity to them that is eternal and transcendent.
Some of the pictures of industrial gloves appear patinated like the most exquisite bronzes, but they also point to our poisoning of our world with toxicity, and by extension our inability to even touch things without protection. We are alienated from our own image. The pictures of discarded toys also have this pathos, combined with a sensual power that makes them seductive and dangerous.
The Tin Can sunsets are slightly different – satirical, and exploring the worthy trope of beauty being where you look for it. Ahead of brit pack artists subsequently exploring the dump (like Webster & Noble) in terms not only of time, but also of quality. The care and painterliness of this body of work just make it a continual delight in a way that is all too rare in a world of conceptual one liners.
There are also many other wonderful things in the book – the notes from his wife, the double portraits of people and their dogs – that make you wonder why Arnatt was not more successful. Even when I can’t quite go with him – the pictures of dog turds for instance – I trust his judgement and hope that one day I will be able to see it as he saw it.
If you have ever read London Fields by that effete literary snob Martin Amis you may like me have a tarnished association with the name Keith. Doubtless unfairly it is a name that evokes sparse beards covering pasty chins, ill fitting polo shirts and darts. It is a shocking admission to myself that exotic artists’ names are likely to make me look at work in a different way, but I am proud to be a fan of a man called Keith.