Visual art review: Viviane Sassen | Hugh Hood

Images from Hugh Hood exhibition at Street Level gallery in Glasgow


Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

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Street Level Photoworks @ Trongate 103, Glasgow

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The principal joy of this year’s Venice Biennale was the wide-ranging, dense and often surprising exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace, curated by Massimiliano Gioni. What is often a sprawling, incoherent and exhausting experience at Venice turned out to be deft and clever. Part of that cleverness was to show you important works you didn’t know by artists you did and to claim as artists all kinds of unlikely folk, from Carl Jung to a host of outsiders whose work once languished unseen in forgotten storerooms and attics.

Amongst the outsiders was the Amsterdam fashion photographer, Viviane Sassen. As a former Prix de Rome winner and regular in the pages of publications like Purple, Dazed & Confused and Wallpaper* she is hardly an unknown in the context of photography, but she’s not the most familiar of names in the fine art world.

Sassen’s suite of low-key photographs focused largely on the human figure: bodies intertwined with sheets and shrubbery and with each other. She has an off kilter sensibility and a strong instinct for the patterns we make in the world. Presented in small format and a fairly informal hang, the work chimed well with Gioni’s overarching theme: the desire to collect and classify all types of information and the sheer impossibility of doing so.

All of this boded well for the small survey of Sassen’s work, which has toured to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. The show, In and Out of Fashion, is an attempt to bring together Sassen’s different strands of photography: mainstream commercial fashion campaigns for big-budget labels, self-directed projects and portraiture as well as low-fi shoots for zines and magazines.

It turns out though, this is quite a hard thing to do within small space constraints and the different registers of the work are hard to reconcile. The mainstream fashion is presented with a casualness that sits well with Sassen’s carefree aesthetic, including rolling projections and mirrored displays, small monitors and big screens. Often fashion photography is presented as though it is as serious as Rembrandt. Sassen, you feel, has things more in proportion.

There’s something quite hypnotic about sitting and letting the projected work roll over you. But in the sheer volume of images it’s hard not to spot the repetition: a dull clothes shoot made more lively by a model who is horizontal rather than vertical, a striking model made radical by the dramatic exposure of boobs and pubes. But the things that Sassen is good at – bodies in juxtaposition, fashion that doesn’t take clothes too seriously and models dwarfed by incongruous objects from duvet covers to petticoats – she is very good at.

A selection of works presented in more formal style doesn’t quite gel. A much-vaunted collaboration with model Roxane Danset seems a modern rehash of some of the staples of Surrealist photography; a set of nudes is hugely indebted to classics of the early 20th century.

The strongest and most arresting shots are those that seem closer to Sassen’s idiosyncrasies. Strange little studio sessions that combine the human figure and incongruous plant life. A photo-shoot for Kutt magazine that skirts close to homespun pornography in rather comical style, with her models and collaborators, “perspiring in rip off Miu Miu”. The cabinets of magazines, Polaroids and sketchbooks give texture to Sassen’s career. Like the premise of Gioni’s show at Venice, though, it turns out you can’t actually do and show everything.

It would be harder to think of a more profound contrast with Sassen’s work than the small show of documentary film-maker Hugh Hood’s early monochrome photographs, Glasgow 1974, which Street Level Photoworks are currently showing at Trongate 103.

Hood began as a 10-year-old by helping his dad develop photographs, went on to study at Glasgow College of Printing and in his spare time wandered out of the darkroom and onto the streets. What he found there now seems utterly extraordinary: a city in the process of having its broken heart punched out and replaced. For Hood’s 1974 captures the trauma of urban dereliction, widespread demolition and the gaping artificial artery of the brand new M8.

In many senses every Glasgow cliché is here: the shipyards, the tower blocks, the boats and trains. There are the Glasgow kids and characters who crop up in much of the art and photography of the period. But there is something unsparing about Hood’s eye and his resistance to the leafy or sentimental clichés that are often set against the urban grit.

His images of Sighthill, for example, show the tower blocks rising from a scarred landscape that might have been the surface of the moon. The images of two wee girls playing in a back court might be something out of Oscar Marzaroli were it not for the fact that the surrounding buildings are so blasted and forlorn that you feel you have wandered into a scene from the apocalypse. Where a softhearted snapper might search for anecdote, Hood was spare and bleak.

Alongside its regular work in promoting younger photographers and artists, Street Level is doing much to unearth important archives like Hood’s. The recent show of the work of the late David Peat explored similar territory. The exhibition of the work rock photographer Harry Papadopoulos was a delightful daunder through pop music history home and away.

Hood’s route back to his archive was a slow one. He moved to London in 1980 and only found his old negatives at his brother’s house some 26 years later. It was at the Mitchell Library that the writer and journalist Allan Brown discovered them in a ring-binder in the Glasgow Room. Brown, who agitated to get the work on show, has written an exceptionally lovely and perceptive essay to go with the exhibition that vividly evokes Hoods “unblinking assessments of a vanquished city nursing its shattered jawlines.” It would be great to see this writing and these fascinating photographs get the big-budget book they deserve.

• Viviane Sassen: In and Out of Fashion runs until 9 Februrary; Hugh Hood: Glasgow 1974 runs until 8 December