Per Fronth's BLOODLINES by Brian Ashbee
The works in the current exhibition make an interesting comparison with Per Fronth's major project of 1998, Xingu Chronicles.The earlier series was a meditation, in photographic emulsion and oil paint, on a tribe of Brazilian Indians in their natural environment.
The current series is a meditation on the Hunt of the Duke of Beaufort, one of the most venerable in England, and it features both the animals and their owners in their natural environment. As an artist, Fronth draws upon the expertise gained during his years as a professional photo-journalist, but with something more like the distanced gaze of an anthropologist; he has photographed many different cultures across the globe, so it should come as no surprise that he finds parallels between these two very different cultures, the Brazilian "primitives" and the English aristocracy. But the parallels he offers us in "Bloodlines" are, to say the least, challenging to a Western, especially English , audience. Few of us can be free from received ideas about fox hunting and the social rituals of which it is a part. We are more able to respond to images of Noble Savages in their tropical Eden, than to images of the English upper class at play, especially when that play is the sport of foxhunting, ("the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable", to quote Oscar Wilde), an activity seen by a majority of the people of the British Isles as socially divisive and barbaric.
But it is precisely such "barbarism" that interests Fronth, not merely in the sense of the cruel "blood"-sport which so enrages the Animal Rights activists, but rather in the sense of an atavistic ritual connecting its devotees to one another and to the land. The hunt is as much a rite of belonging for the English in their landscape of down and heath as it was for the Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest. Bloodlines, the title of the series, refers explicitly to this sense of continuous unbroken connection to the past. It is a complex phenomenon. First and foremost it is a genetic link; the hounds have an unbroken bloodline back to the 1740s, one of the longest in the world. But if the hunt is to survive; and at the time of writing that is by no means certain, it will be because of its human "bloodlines²; those of an aristocracy defending its privileges, husbanding its rights over the land of which it claims stewardship.
This duality linking the human and the animal is apparent in the opening work of the cycle, Field I. The Duke of Beaufort's mansion rises majestically behind the hounds, which wait impatiently for the hunt to begin. Three of the animals are engaged in what might equally be innocent play or a vicious dog-fight. Whatever the nature of the altercation, it is a momentary exchange; a few swift bites, and an obligatory snarl, and the ordered hierarchy of the pack will soon be re-established. Such a brief flurry scarcely troubles the serene authority of the architectural setting. But, the image seems to suggest, it is to just such mechanisms of power and control, of real or ritualized violence, that the aristocratic pile in the background owes its continuing wealth and splendour.
The duality of human and animal societies is even more apparent - and with lashings of irony - in Generation II, where the hound portraits are ranked like those of so many aristocratic ancestors ranged in their gilt frames in a country house drawing room. They are of course individuals - as those dog owners who commission "pet portraits" would insist - and Fronth has delighted in parodying canine portraiture of the most popular, sentimental kind. But they also represent a class, a race, a generation, just as their aristocratic owners do. They - both animals and human - are at the same time individuals and a type.
Genetic inheritance, or race, is only one of the many meanings contained in the "blood" of the series title. Other meanings emerge powerfully from images of the abattoir in which animals from the estate are slaughtered to provide fresh meat for the pack. Blue Wall recalls treatments by Rembrandt and Soutine of animal carcasses, though in this image Fronth has been discreet in his painterly interventions, the painter in him deferring to the documentary authority of the original photographic image, shot on colour negative film. But in Dragging the Head, (from a black and white negative) the colour and the broken textures become intensely expressive. Red, we are reminded, is the colour of blood, and a signal of physical arousal, either aggressive or sexual.
It is the colour that provokes action and movement. Fronth's fondness for adding a red band at the base or the margins of images alerts us to the potential for violence contained within them, while at the same time asserting the mechanism for its control. The red is usually geometrically contained in bands, or in squares or rectangles. Chromatically, it is a trumpet call to action; geometrically, it is disciplined by its boundaries. "Boundaries", both social and geographical, are what the hunt and its social structures depend on for their survival.
Such an argument might seem at first to turn on a verbal sleight of hand. But what are we to make of such a formalist vocabulary, applied by the artist in oil paint onto photographic images? Is it not the clash of two distinct visual codes, the formalist language of high modernism, applied to images deriving from a photo-documentary tradition? What can Fronth be thinking of here?
A clue is to be found in Fronth's earlier cycle, the Xingu Chronicles, where a red rectangle applied (by the painter) to the cheek of a Xingu girl functioned both as a facial decoration, applied to the skin of an individual, and as a modernist gesture of the artist, asserting the "skin" of the canvas and echoing its rectangular edges - a somewhat unnerving parallel between paint as a means of "primitive" social identification and modern formalist abstraction.
Modernist abstraction and the "primitive" facial decoration have a common link in the use of heraldic devices in coasts of arms and flags, which function both as tools of social identity and symbols of political power. This link is apparent in Man, where the tripartite division of the canvas is similar to that of many flags, and the figure - in formal attire, top-hatted, raising a glass in a ritual gesture - is reduced to an icon. The glass of sherry drunk at the start of the hunt is an important part of the social ritual. Here, the heraldic structure framing the gesture of the raised glass and the titled hat, detach the image from its origins as photography and enshrine it as an icon celebrating a quasi-religious ritual. Religious? Surely not? But perhaps one should not forget that the transubstantiation of wine into blood is the foundation of the Christian communion. And the "sacrifice" of the fox, the quarry, was traditionally accompanied by the "blooding" of novice riders. These "bloodlines" reach far and deep into the origins of our culture, however we might wish to suppress or renounce them.
Heraldic is a term equally applicable to the beast caught in mid-air, in Movement III, its triple symmetry as menacing and potent as three lions couchant in a flag - though whether this aerial movement is that of the hunter or the hunted, of attack or flight, is unclear - as is the question of just what dark terrestrial or spiritual power this potent image might be the emblem.
The themes of symmetry and repetition apparent in Movement III are a frequent concern of Fronth. Repetition is a device for showing that the particular is in fact one of a type. The artist is clearly fascinated by the tension between the unique individual and the group of which it is a part, and equally by the tension between the individual image and the series. Hence his interest in the series photographs of Muybridge, and his fondness for the work of Andy Warhol, evident in the blue riders of Seconds.
And perhaps there is also a link here with Twins: two individuals who happen to be genetically identical and in a harmonious alignment of posture and attitude. (Fronth is himself a twin.) And it might be significant that the artists has chosen a bluish tonality for both of these images, favouring repose and contemplation, rather than the rousing sepia/red that he often prefers.
Repeated imagery is not always so blatant: In Movement II it is disguised by the overlapping of the image, which turns the two galloping horses and their riders into a maze of flashing limbs. Their frenetic energy works powerfully against the strict formality and bi-lateral symmetry of the five panels. As in Movement I , only the legs of the riders are glimpsed, booted and spurred, and poised atop so much pounding flesh, bone and sinew, glistening with the colour of blood.
To these familiar devices of modernism - abstraction and serial imagery - we must add a third, by means of which the photographic image is transmuted into painting: that of facture. Fronth transfers the photographic image, after varying degrees of digital manipulation, to canvas, and works on it in oil. It is his search for a franker, more complete and personal mode of expression that has led him to move - very much against the grain of recent art history - from photography to painting. The process of painting serves a number of purposes: firstly, it allows Fronth to explore the painterly play of surfaces - to engage with the materiality of the painting medium, in contrast to the immateriality of its subject, which, in the final analysis, is that of all photography, namely light; secondly, it undermines the notion of documentary veracity implicit in the photographed image, in favour of a deeper notion of artistic truth ("nothing lies like a photograph", says Fronth); above all, it allows the artist to transmute these fragments of documentary reality into something more generic, something with the formal authority of signs.
Many of these images suggest the darker side of the hunt; nevertheless, Fronth is not blind to its lyricism. Field IV offers a vision of the English countryside, with its spreading oak and raking sunlight, which Constable would have recognized.
Field V suggests a more ambiguous nostalgia, and reminds me irresistibly of the monumentalizing photography of Sam Peckinpah¹s lament for the violence and comradeship of the Old West, "The Wild Bunch"; here, the posture of the huntsman seems deliberately to turn his back on us and our prejudices; seems, like Peckinpah's flawed heroes, intent on his passage into history, bearing in his bowed back the burden of a guilt and a knowledge which softens all the edges of the landscape and flushes it with a roseate glow.
The hunt is a complex phenomenon in which man, horse, hound and fox all play their pre- determined roles. Fronth is concerned to elucidate this complex symbiosis, not to descend to easy invective, but rather to undersign this age-old relationship between man and animal, and to tease out its implications. The riders here are not individuals but archetypes, part of a larger pattern of which they themselves may barely be aware. These images celebrate its lyricism, its energy, the manic exhilaration of its speed, while making us aware of its darker side. As such they issue a challenge to the spectator, perhaps most explicitly in the final image of the cycle, Presence. Here the central hound, its head surrounded by a halo like Christ's in a Rembrandt etching, directly confronts us, the spectator, as though seeking from us some clue to the meaning of their lives and the hunt which is its sole purpose.
If this remarkable series of works does indeed offer something of an answer, it is not a simplistic one, but a nuanced and complex one in which compassion, horror, irony and humour all play their part. The Hunt, after all, is as old as Humanity. Whether we like it or not, it is in our blood.
Brian Ashbee is an art critic and digital film-maker. He lectures at Cambridge University and is a contributor to Art Review, Contemporary Visual Arts and The Guardian. Mr. Ashbee resides in England and France.