Anne Zahalka: The Mathematician & The Collector

An essay for the Griffith University Art Collection as a part of the Student & Alumni Internship Program (SAIP), 2014

Anne Zahalka (b.1957) is one of Australia's most eminent contemporary photographic artists. Frequently working within the conventions of portraiture, Zahalka's practice is largely defined by her interests in the discernment of public and private space and blending the past with the contemporary. She has exhibited extensively across Australia and internationally, with her photographs being featured in various major public, private and corporate collections. Zahalka is also a former recipient of the Australia Council Fellowship, and was commissioned by Sydney Airport in 2002 for the Art at Work program.

The Mathematician and The Collector are two ilfochrome prints from the series 'Gestures' that exemplify Zahalka's concerns with appropriation, image hierarchies, and the cultural frames, codes and symbols embedded in historical imagery. The works were produced in the process of Zahalka's Masters degree at the College of Fine Arts, Sydney, and follow on from the 'Resemblance' and 'Bondi: playground of the Pacific' series which use image manipulation, and interrogate ritualistic aspects of gesture respectively.[1] They were initially shown together in Zahalka's 1994 solo exhibition Gestures at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney.

In The Mathematician and The Collector, Zahalka challenges traditional conventions of portraiture and its use as a tool for preserving likeness for posterity or the projection of status.[2] Appropriating imagery from 17th to 19th century European artists, such as Jusepe de Ribera's Archimedes (c. 1630), Zahalka digitally erases and decontextualizes; reducing these culturally familiar paintings to their gestural and emblematic forms.[3] Zahalka thus unveils the cultural frame of gesture and the influence of early Christian philosophy, which considered gesture as an expression of the soul and art as a means of illustrating appropriate codes of behaviour and expression.[4] The works from Gestures therefore read as a series of signs, indicating ideas of class, culture, power and knowledge which challenge Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's assertion that gesture is "like a single bit of scenery from the production of a play"[5], unable to outlive its context. In fact, the portrayal of Zahalka's gestures in The Mathematician and The Collector and their familiarity indicate an unavoidable cultural inheritance within which all artists must construct their work[6], and that "the hand has not relinquished its role in the world"[7]. This idea is further emphasised by the Perspex face-mounting of the images that reflects the viewer's own face and body within the inky image voids, encouraging viewers to reconsider their own identities within the context of particular gestures.[8] Within the 1994 'Gestures' exhibition, Zahalka's The Mathematician and The Collector were also shown beside appropriated gestural images from advertising, further emphasising the link between the historical and contemporary, and the lingering presence of European gestural signs within the contemporary consciousness.[9] 

By virtue of her prominence as a major practitioner in Australia's contemporary photo-media landscape, Zahalka's The Mathematician and The Collector are significant additions to the Griffith University Art Collection (GUAC), and bring the number of works by this artist in the collection to thirteen. They join The Gentleman, a work from the Gestures series previously acquired, and the works were featured in 2014 as a part of the Griffith University At Collection Recent Acquisitions exhibition at The Griffith University Art Gallery. Both The Mathematician and The Collector demonstrate an array of the GUAC collection interests, including the use of appropriation, interrogation of authenticity, art history, identity myths and issues of cultural heritage. Zahalka's Gestures images were also made during the early stages of digital photographic manipulation, and consequently foster intermedia dialogue between painting, photo-media and digital art; most notably raising questions regarding the presence of the artist's hand.[10]

Seductive and familiar, Anne Zahalka's The Mathematician and The Collector use the decontextualizing nature of dark voids to raise questions about the ambiguity of gesture and the expressivity of hands. Appropriating works from Old Masters to highlight their role in illustrating early Christian philosophy, Zahalka examines the significance of hands as signifiers within the contemporary psyche, and the pervasiveness of a cultural inheritance that both informs contemporary art and our understandings of gestural expression. Zahalka's intermedia dialogue also raises questions regarding the role of the artist's hands within new media and photographic capture, asking whether gesture and expression evoked by the hand is still possible in digitised mediums. Caught in mysterious darkness or beneath a cascade of butterflies, Zahalka's absent figures and talking hands test the point at which gesture folds to ambiguity, and the persistence of cultural iconography from historical to contemporary contexts.

View essay in the online collection

[1] French, B & Plamer, D 2009, 'Twelve Australian Photo Artists', Piper Press, Sydney, p. 66.
[2] Centre for Contemporary Photography 2007, 'Hall of Mirrors: Anne Zahalka Portraits 1987-2007', exhibition catalogue, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy, p. 41.
[3] Centre for Contemporary Photography 2007, op. cit, p.5; Lowry, S 2006, 'Ghostly Familiarities', Broadsheet, vol. 35, no. 2, p. 117.
[4] Logan, J 1994, 'Gesture: towards a lexicon', Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Paddington, NSW, p. 6
[5] Zimmer, J, 'Anne Zahalka: Gesture', Agenda, no. 35, vol. 31, p. 9
[6] Centre for Contemporary Photography 2007, op. cit, p. 5.
[7] Zimmer, J loc. cit.
[8] ibid; Centre for Contemporary Photography 2007, op. cit, p. 5.
[9] Logan, J 1994, loc. cit.
[10] Zimmer, J loc. cit.

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