Richard Billingham

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Richard Billingham - new photographs Richard Billingham - new photographs - the artist and Anthony Reynolds Gallery

Time Out says  

Posted: Mon Apr 12 2010

'I was just trying to make order out of chaos,' said the would-be painter Richard Billingham of his reasons for photographing his dysfunctional family back in the 1990s; in fact, he was looking for models for his paintings, and his alcoholic father Ray and obese mother Liz wouldn't sit still long enough, so he picked up a camera. What could be more orderly than a model flattened to two dimensions, utterly acquiescent, never moving from position, or getting tired or cross? And what could be less representative of the people he was trying to paint? At some point, Billingham must have realised that chaos is only amenable to a certain amount of rehabilitation, and started concentrating on those garish, oddly beautiful photographs instead.

The result was the disorder we call fame - a spot in Saatchi's 1997 'Sensation' exhibition, awards for 'Ray's a Laugh', his book on his family, a place on the 2001 Turner shortlist, acclaim and adulation. Billingham has not chosen to point his camera at this kind of chaos; maybe it's too big for his viewfinder. But there's a certain logic in the move from photographing the inmates of that council flat to picturing the inhabitants of zoos, as he has done most recently (in film and video).

There are a couple of those shots in this exhibition, and they ought to sit oddly with the images of family life that surround them, but they don't, even though this new ensemble of Billinghams is rather less feral than the old one. The colours are quieter, the shock value muted, but the fact that Billingham appears to have constructed a family far removed from the one he grew up in - middle-class home with polished floorboards and appliances, neat attentive wife, baby son with no more to cry about than most infants - doesn't lessen the unease. With the animal shots - the polar bear, the jaguar - we sense the cage even, or especially, when we can't see it: it's hard to escape the conclusion that Billingham, the son of a man who dislikes leaving the house, is so aware of the restrictions on urban humanity that they seep into every family composition, however ostensibly calm.

The viewer winds up prowling these photographs like a social worker looking for discord, and sometimes, inevitably, finding it - in the hungry eyes of the dog watching baby Walter being fed, or in the toddler's frantic scrabbling at the kitchen door as he attempts to leave the scene of a saucepan-chucking misdemeanour. The more you look, the more there is to see, which is a sign of Billingham's talent but also of our own psychic disquiet.

It is a relief to turn to the gorgeous slivers of landscape Billingham shoots in Constable country and on the South Downs; like Constable or Corot, Billingham comprehends and is comfortable with the unruly loveliness of landscape. In one large-format image, he plays in monochrome with the crisscrossing reflections of trees, reflections and ripples like a child messing around with a game of pick-up sticks; in another, the white bird that is ostensibly the picture's subject becomes almost secondary to the play of richly coloured foliage and wire around it. Is it his upbringing that has made Billingham more comfortable with the fringes than the centre, more at ease with neglect (that poor dog outside the window) than with affection?

It is astonishing how much unease he can introduce into a simple picture of an adult cradling a child in a comfortable living room: the discarded baby clothes spotting the bright carpet, the child's ostentatiously turned back, the adult's cut-off head all leave a tremor of worry in the air. The baby is looking at the video recorder as if worried it will either disappear or swallow him up. It's an understandable concern for a working-class boy made good, although the boy in question is of course the one holding the camera; his son has been born into a calmer, more luxurious world. Still, 'Jason, Walter and Ray', a masterly exercise in intergenerational gazing, distils the sense that there is no escape, for men any more than for polar bears or wildcats. It makes you wonder what kind of pictures young Walter may grow up to take - if, of course, he takes any.

Anthony Reynolds details


Anthony Reynolds

60 Great Marlborough St, London W1F 7BG

Transport Oxford Circus 


020 7439 2201

10am-6pm Tue-Sat

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