Christopher Brayshaw's Into Thin Air is a quiet revelation
At CSA Space until December 31
It takes nerve to establish your reputation as an art critic and curator and then present yourself to the world as an artist. And that is what Christopher Brayshaw has done. With his small show of digital photographs, Into Thin Air, he has stepped into a condition of vulnerability: he’s standing stark naked in the marketplace. Brayshaw’s friends and close colleagues (the people who persuaded him to exhibit his work) have already been following the evolution of his photographic practice. Others have encountered it, in conjunction with his art writing, on his blog. For the rest of us, however, this CSA Space show, curated by Steven Tong, is a quiet revelation.
As a bookseller, rock climber, and inveterate art viewer, Brayshaw has taken a number of road trips to and through the United States, and his photographs reflect his travels. Or perhaps, more precisely, they reveal the way he pokes around the un-picturesque margins of wherever he happens to be, whether it’s Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Brooklyn. He brings the same sense of dislocation to his hometown Vancouver, focusing on what he described in a recent interview with the Straight as “the overlooked, the broken—the blind spots in late industrial capitalism”.
Brayshaw’s images include a scruffy coat dangling like a corpse from the crook of an East Vancouver tree; a near-defunct secondhand bookstore on L.A.’s Melrose Avenue; a hidden spring on the desert outskirts of Las Vegas; and a dead palm tree beside a freeway near Livingston, California. This last photo is one of the strongest in the show. Its central figure, so dark and desiccated that it looks fossilized, almost metallic, is flanked by a directional sign, an overarching street lamp, and a surveillance camera atop a tall metal post. The tree functions here as both a surrogate human (suggesting that we’re all subject to a vast network of scrutiny and control) and a symbol of blasted nature (goodbye, Kyoto Accord). Late industrial capitalism, indeed.
Brayshaw is fascinated, he said, with “photographic seeing and the abstract configuration of space”. He revels in the small details and optical effects his camera captures: a huddle of dried leaves, crumpled paper, and cigarette butts on a sidewalk in La Cienega; the glittery haze created by deteriorating UV film on glass in Antique Dealer’s Window; the swirling play of colour and line on a desert stream viewed through a tangle of thin, bare branches in Arroyo.
From Jeff Wall to Stephen Waddell, a number of Vancouver photographers have influenced Brayshaw’s work. His shot of the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, for example, obviously and concertedly refers to a series of digitally montaged photos of the same subject by Scott McFarland. “You test yourself against people you admire,” Brayshaw explained. Another print, Blind, recognizes the enormous impact Wall’s photography and writing have had on his understanding of the medium.
At the same time that his art quotes many of his contemporaries, Brayshaw resists terms like homage, satire, and even commentary. He does, however, reveal a great interest in the creative possibilities of appropriation. Brayshaw’s photos, it seems, function not as mimicry of those he admires but as an investigation of what it is they do: he immerses himself in certain subjects, locations, and framing devices. It’s a fascinating and heartfelt project.