Animal magic: Alex Van Gelder’s Meat Portraits

Alex Van Gelder, Meat Portraits #13, 2012

Alex Van Gelder, Meat Portraits #13, 2012

I’ll admit to approaching the exhibition of Alex Van Gelder’s Meat Portraits at Hauser and Wirth with a feeling of trepidation. Yes, from what I’d seen the images looked rather beautiful, but there’s no getting round the fact that they’re photographs of bits of dead animal and I’m a vegetarian so meat isn’t something I’m keen on looking at really.

Individually, many of the images are undeniably beautiful to the extent it’s sometimes hard to remember that the subject matter is so gruesome. The colours and patterns are seductive and there’s a pleasing symmetry to some of the pictures that just doesn’t say abattoir to me. At times it’s all too clear though.

Alex Van Gelder, Meat Portraits #26, 2012

Meat Portraits #26, 2012

Somehow though, even with images like #26, with the animal subject matter all to clear, there’s a layer of unreality that lets me focus on the beauty of the picture rather than the actuality of the subject matter.

Alex Van Gelder, Meat Portraits #37, 2012Meat Portraits #37, 2012

Van Gelder visited the open-air slaughterhouse in Benin where the pictures were made on and off over a period of roughly a year. In some, the animal remains are arranged, some were pictured as he found them. The pictures seem to reference both portraiture and still life; they’re painterly but with almost forensic levels of detail.

Alex Van Gelder, Meat Portraits #28, 2012Meat Portraits #28, 2012

There starkness of the black background in many of the pictures lends a theatricality to the work and it’s this, I think, that lets me spend time with them and appreciate the beauty of the pictures rather than feeling repulsed by the visceral subject matter.

Alex Van Gelder, Meat Portraits #24, 2012Meat Portraits #24, 2012

Somehow there’s a distance that means the pictures become a fascinating puzzle; certainly in many cases, though aware I’m looking at bits of animal carcass I can’t quite work out which bits or from what animal they come. The anonymity of the numbering works well here: this is a collection but beyond the clue of the over-arching title it’s not a clearly defined and catalogued one.

Alex Van Gelder, Meat Portraits #38, 2012

Meat Portraits #38, 2012

This is a body of work I find easiest to look at one picture at a time though. In the middle of the space, surrounded by the pictures, it’s impossible not to focus on the rawness of the work. These are bloody chunks of just killed animals.

Alex Van Gelder, Meat Portraits at Hauser and Wirth, 2014Meat Portraits installed at Hauser and Wirth, Savile Row

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