Ronald Pile 2005

 In Reviews

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth” (Two statements by Picasso, Dore Ashton)
This exhibition combines three distinct but related groups of images. For many the most immediately disturbing of these may be the selection from the Shoah series, a continuing body of work in response to the process of keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. For Andrew Aarons the memory is a personal one only in so far as his mother was brought up in a village about 100km east of Warsaw where, before the war, 50% of the population had been Jewish. In 1987 he visited Poland and the death camps for the first time, after childhood memories of the objects in his grand-mother’s house in London had been re-kindled by a visit to Jewish refuseniks in Moscow following the Chernobyl disaster. Many of the images in this exhibition have their origin in the Nazi propaganda photographs of the period, re-defined through the aesthetic and technical processes which Aarons first learned as a student at Camberwell School of Art in the 1950’s. He first showed slides of this work while giving the key-note speech at the Australian National Holocaust Society in Sydney, where he had the very moving experience of being told by many survivors that it was the “truth” of his images, rather than that of well-documented photographs, that enabled them to talk about their experiences for the very first time. Ironically, when approaching certain museums later with the idea of showing the series, Aarons was given to understand that his work had little to add to the “real” photographic archive.

T.S.Eliot’s Webster in Whispers of Immortality was “much possessed by death/ and saw the skull beneath the skin”. As the furore over the Body Worlds exhibition demonstrated, we may not always choose to be reminded of what lies beneath the surface of things. In the engaging and finely crafted series of Normandy Landscapes, which grew out of the Shoah work, Aarons has deliberately flattened the visual impact of the painted surface, and chosen to restrict his choice of colours to the four primaries that correspond to the two sets of cones in the human eye. The result is a tapestry-like quality, enhanced by the thin blood-red joins between sections of the painted canvas, as though the warp were continually seeping through. Though Aarons worked for some years as a textile designer in Canada, the visual device used here relates directly to the theme of an artist’s sense of responsibility towards the keeping alive of those layers of “truth” beneath a working surface. A photograph of tranquil fields in Normandy today will tell us little of the terrible slaughter that has taken place there over many generations.

Memory can be defined in terms of the power of retaining or reproducing mental or sensory impressions, and it is in the final series of paintings, under the title “Landscapes of Memory”, that Aarons confronts the latter. One group refer to the period when, at the age of two, together with his mother, grandmother and sister, he experienced the frightening sensation of bombs falling on London, and on those occasions when the bombing drove them out, the sublime sensation of country and clean air on arrival in the Welsh countryside. Making symbolic use of the colours associated with the technology of colour television (red for London, green for countryside, blue), Aarons sets out to rediscover the essence of such childhood sensations. Each composition is edited in such a way as to allow the spectator room to manœuvre through their own response to image and associated emotion, and perhaps towards the private realization of another “truth”.

Ronald Pile 2005

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