Justine Varga: Photogenic Drawing

Photography has the potential to astound. However, in our age of smartphones and social media, the power of the photographic image has been diminished from its position of ‘the impossible science of the unique being’ as Roland Barthes proselytised.

As such it is refreshing to view the work of Justine Varga and her expansive view of aesthetics. She revels in the medium’s ability to embrace the mystery of existence, acknowledge ‘being’ and nothingness. Varga’s installation at the Australian Centre for Photography titled ‘Photogenic Drawing’ (named after photographic pioneer, William Fox Talbot’s 1834 book) pays respect to non-camera photography and the inception of photography. It presents an aggregate of the artist’s perception of the physical and emblematic world.

Installation image from the exhibition ‘Justine Varga: Photogenic Drawing’, Australian Centre for Photography, 2017 © ACP Michael Waite. Courtesy the artist and Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

Whilst many recognise the conventions of abstraction in her work, Varga maintains it is the presence of a person (in many cases, but not solely, the artist) that is paramount – or, “how we experience everything through the body… It’s all about presence and absence,” she clarified. The phenomenon of ‘presence’ is uniquely documented in this show, as the artist not only offers a compression of time, often associated with photography, but an archeology of light and performativity. As a result, ‘Photogenic Drawing’ reads as an amalgamation of memory, metaphysics and materiality.

Varga’s non-camera based photographs challenge the popular understanding of the medium; through interventions with light sensitive negatives she extends moments to produce images that disclose another state. Light and the ‘performative action’ of the photographer rattle our steady, or practiced, gaze inviting us to decipher her images from another point of view. Her approach today is a pictorial reorientation to the treatment of photography and alludes to the bifurcations that exist in it.

She is conscious of this binary condition her practice presents, dualities such as presences and absence within the pictorial field, looking through and looking at the photograph, corporeality and disembodiment of the artist as well as ruination and creation of the image, all being essential properties in her work. The conditions of reality, associated with photography within this installation demonstrates Varga’s own aesthetic perspicacity, as she confirms “I’m playing at the margins of many things; these images are documents attached to my being in the everyday world.”

Installation images from the exhibition ‘Justine Varga: Photogenic Drawing’, Australian Centre for Photography, 2017 © ACP Michael Waite. Courtesy the artist and Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

Varga’s intimacy with colour and light are touchingly apparent in this exhibition, its fabrication diarises her practice from 2014 to present day. Each image on show is layered over others, presenting an archive of Varga’s work that can be construed paradoxically as a self-portrait. This interpretation has not been entirely embraced (nor understood) as after winning the Olive Cotton Award this year for her work titled Maternal Line (2017), she was accused of cogent deformation within the practice of portrait photography.

Varga acknowledges that whilst at art school she majored in photography, the core of her artistic training was the practice of drawing, identifying how drawing informed the way she thinks about photography and uses the camera to envision how specific marks are made on the photographic paper. Fingerprints, smudges and scratches are all physical actions made by the artist on paper moving photography away from the idea of mechanical reproduction to a transfigured visual field. “This installation itself is a kind of drawing too, that happens in space and it pays attention to the material of the photographic object, and really over a few days, I had no preconceived notion of this, it was a drawing that happened over this time. It is directly referencing the printing process”, said the artist.

While photography is dematerialised by the digital world, Varga validates its material presence through her analogue approach. She tests accepted typologies in photography by revising its fundamental unity of material and practice. In her dance of both exposure and concealment ‘Photographic Drawing’ is a phenomenological exegesis.


Craig Malyon is an educator and writer based in Sydney.

ACP Project Space Gallery
Until 21 October, 2017