STEVENSON is pleased to present Polyphonic by Pieter Hugo, his first exhibition in the gallery’s Parktown North space.
Comprising over 100 head-and-shoulders portraits taken over almost 20 years, Polyphonic resumes and expands the lines of inquiry forged by Hugo in Being Present, his 2021 survey exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival.
There, the photographs were selected for how they ‘dabble with the lexicons of forensics, surveillance and typologies while keeping a strong humanism at their core’. Here, the artist supplements these ideas with observations on the failure of taxonomies. As its focus, the show comprises simple, studio portraits with no environments present. Through his amassed images, taken in locales as far apart as San Francisco, Beijing and Graaff-Reinet, Polyphonic offers ways of thinking through the tensions between difference and similarity, individuation and collectivity.
Hugo’s constant engagement with the modalities of taxonomy is aimed at questioning their efficacy and exhaustiveness rather than reinforcing them; the success of such exercises resides in the fact that they are incomplete and never-ending, always being enriched and added to. He finds resonance in the writings of Umberto Eco in The Infinity of Lists, including this passage:
The list becomes a way of reshuffling the world … they accumulate properties in order to bring out new relationships between distant things, and in any case to cast doubt on those accepted by common sense.
Also referencing Richard Avedon’s words on the photographic portrait as a picture of ‘someone who knows he’s being photographed’, the images in this exhibition move beyond a study of the gaze, placing emphasis on the friction between the private and the performative. While portraits from series such as Solus and Looking Aside employ direct eye contact to explore the currency of youth and unconventional embodiments within social transactions, works from The Journey, where subjects are photographed asleep, eyes covered, put forward the charge of oblivion in an era of surveillance while offering questions on how a refusal of seeing might offset the toll of being seen.
Other sets of images, including portraits of heads of state, transgender women from Naples known as il femminielli, lawmakers, theoreticians, celebrities, the artist and members of family are spread throughout the gallery at different scales, set in a variety of studio backdrops. In tone, they span the commemorative, utilitarian and idealised, questioning how facial contour and expression affect the perception of the character within a dynamic of social constructs. In the stark removal of each sitter from their context, the works further examine how environment is written on the body.
The use of devices such as the camera infrared function in The Journey and the faux dermatological technique employed in There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends interrogates the ever-expanding possibilities of creating images, whether in conditions of non-visibility, or through a deep manipulation of what actually appears to the naked eye.
In Polyphonic, Hugo spotlights how the face mediated through the portrait form becomes an interface to the human spirit, a mutable accessory, a testament to environment or a metonym.
The exhibition opens on Saturday 3 December, 10am to 1pm. The Johannesburg gallery will close for the festive season from 16 December, reopening on Monday 9 January.