It would be impossible to display a bigger and more comprehensive Diane Arbus retrospective than 2005’s Revelations at the V&A – thankfully Timothy Taylor Gallery hasn’t tried to.
Affinities is a much simpler exhibition, free from the clutter and ephemera that often accompany a retrospective (contact sheets, articles etc). Timed to coincide with a major exhibition at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, here well known images are shown alongside work never before displayed in the UK, creating a show that is familiar but also revealing.
The gallery itself is large with unbroken walls, a high ceiling and perfect spot lighting of the work. Located in an area of London where other galleries follow a commercial style. At these galleries the work is for sale and your presence as an art lover not a customer is often not appreciated. Timothy Taylor has the style of gallery twice its size, and a welcoming atmosphere more kin to our best loved galleries.
Anyone wanting iconic Arbus will not be disappointed: Female impersonators, the king and queen of the senior citizens dance; the nudist couple are all here. However it is her interest in the artificial that is new to me.
This artificiality is centred on showbiz and celebrity. Arbus created portraits of people who look like other people, a London assignment which saw her photograph ‘Elizabeth Taylor’ and ‘Winston Churchill’ as well as the waxworks at Madam Tusssauds. Unexpected landscapes from America such as a skull mountain from a Disney ride and a haunting house on a hill from a movie set complete the theme. These landscapes and an image of a cloud on screen at a drive in movie show a more poetic side to her work.
For me the work of Arbus now seems less dark and shocking. The show lacks a physical darkness that was present at the V & A, the space is bright and the the prints are framed and mounted on dazzling white. However this is not the reason, for me it is because society is more accepting or maybe more aware of ‘Arbus’s people’. Channel Four has a penchant for the outsider and so many of these groups or ‘types’ have featured in dubiously titled shows, think ‘Crip on a Trip’. On display is Arbus’s portrait of a woman with her monkey baby, the phenomenon of monkey babies being the subject of a 2009 Channel Four documentary. This exposure is not detrimental to the imagery but instead shows Arbus as a true pioneer.
Perhaps the confrontational and darker work is on display in Berlin, this actually works to Timothy Taylor’s benefit, allowing a fresh perspective and an unusually positive message. Affinities as a title and theme manages to link the iconic and the unknown as well as highlight a thread running throughout Arbus’s career. Affinity as a closeness or a relationship is something that transcends her subjects.
There is a visual affinity in those Arbus discovered wearing the same outfit in the same location, the physical affinity of the lookalikes, genetic affinity in the triplet girls, dressed in matching clothes of course. More importantly there is an emotional affinity. The love shown in the blind couple, the friendship in the female impersonators, the family bond in the family of midgets, even the purchased relationship of the dominatrix and her costumer.
To my mind Arbus shows us that no matter our situation there is someone for everyone.
Affinities runs until the 17th of August. The gallery is open Monday-Friday 10-6pm and Saturday 10-2pm