Gavin Hipkins Photographs
Rim Books, NZ$20 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

OKAY, so some days Iím a little slow. Recently Gavin Hipkins had an opening at Lopdell House in Auckland and used that occasion to launch a book. The show was called Second Empire, the book Empire. I knew little about the work except that the new show was a development of an earlier series. Naturally (I believe) I assumed the book was of the exhibition. Being in Wellington I havenít yet seen the show, and it was only some days later, while re-reading Empire that it occurred to me that the work in this book was that of the earlier series. The different titles should have been a giveaway but... some days Iím a bit slow.

Iíve long enjoyed Hipkinsí photography. I may not always pick up on the art theory context but I appreciate that he is always experimenting with subject, style and presentation; that he thinks outside of traditional practice to produce and present work. The same canít be said of all New Zealand artists. With every new show you generally know youíre going to see something different. And unlike many serious photographers, Hipkins is never shy of slipping in humour Ė often quite a lot of it.

Empire has clear links to The Sanctuary (Rim Books, 2006), an earlier series of works which combined traditional pictorialist black and white handprints with the photogram. Many of the base images could have been a show in themselves, but with the addition of the photogrammed lace, beads, etc., the final works took the viewer someplace else, somewhere feminine, surreal, and disrupted.

Like The Sanctuary and the more recent Tender Buttons and The Terrace, Empire (and Second Empire) involves overlaying disparate objects to produce the final work, but with this new series Hipkins has foregone camera-based photography and started using scanners to record the images and Photoshop to piece them together Ė really itís just high-end digital photography. Entailing manipulated line illustrations appropriated from 1950s Commonwealth and Empire children's annuals over which he superimposes scans of store bought woven patches/badges, my immediate reaction was a gentle chuckling.

A mix of boys-own adventure, colonial romanticism, and sexual overtones, these works sit as the masculine antithesis of The Sanctuary. The subtlety of Hipkinsí digital manipulation and colour palette impresses. The idea could so easily have failed in the hands of a lesser artist.

Daniel Palmerís concluding text, ĎEmpire & Other Childrenís Storiesí, gives us a context in which to view all of Hipkins work, and shows how Empire fits within this canon. Concise and well-written, itís not heavy on art speak, nor does it tell us how to read the works. The fact that the text is after the imagery encourages the reader to look through the works and form an opinion before learning more about the art and the artist. My only (very mild) complaint would be that the mildly non-conventional text layout seemed a bit unnecessary and messy.

I tend towards traditionalism with regard to what I like and donít like in photography. These works really should disturb that side of me. The fact that they donít is testament in part to their strength as works, their subtly, their cleverness and their humour. The heavy matt paper stock also reinforces that these are not traditional photographs and donít lay any claim to be.

Along with an impressive body of work, Hipkins is slowly building a nice collection of publications. Empire is a welcome addition.