Photographer Lesley Turnbull has come full circle in her work with/at Testing Grounds, beginning with a development residency in the lead-up to the 2017 Midsumma festival, developing large-scale pasteups of portraits taken during that residency, and culminating in a series of photographs of those pasteups gracing the wall of the bar/information booth on site.
While Testing Grounds encourages all artists and site users to return to continue projects or start new ones, the relationship with Lesley was especially rich. She threw herself into the site; not only in her work taking over and responding to the surfaces of the site, but also becoming a champion of the project and being active in the Testing Grounds community. She turned up to open crit sessions, danced on opening nights of other people’s work, and connected us to her own artist community, most notably Sydney-based artist Liz Bradshaw who came down to use the 3 metre high walls of the Black Box to develop a large-scale drawing work. Lesley has left her mark on Testing Grounds not only with her work but with her personality.
First phase: residency
Lesley’s first time at Testing Grounds was as an artist-in-residence in the White Box, part of the Midsumma Festival arts program. Lesley used the large walls and bright light of Testing Grounds – both indoor and outdoor spaces – as the backdrop for her unique brand of super-intimate portrait photography. Lesley’s technique juxtaposes a casual and disarming personal style – full of charm and kindness and jokes – with a lens that hovers uncomfortably close to the subject, and directions that are strictly procedural rather than emotive. (“Head up, a bit to the side… No, to the left. Eyes down a bit…”)
The resulting series of images – headshots in which faces in sharp focus float against desaturated backgrounds – are magnetic and beautiful. Lesley’s subjects were drawn from her networks, friends of friends, and referrals from artist colleagues, representing both the straight and the LGBTI community. They are ‘queer’ in the sense of the intimacy of the process and the rawness of the resulting pictures; inviting a closeness between viewer, photographer, and subject, and bringing faces into focus in a way that sidelines categories like gender, race, class, or personal politics in favour of sensory connection.
Lesley’s residency culminated in large-scale paste-ups of photos taken while in residence hitting the concrete wall of Testing Grounds, installed in time for the Midsumma Horizon event held on site on February 3rd. It was the first time Lesley had worked at that scale or with past-up as an exhibition technique; after some wrestling with different papers, glues, and pasting techniques, eight prints graced the walls around site.
Second phase: documentation
As part of her process, Lesley returned to Testing Grounds over the next four months to document the gradual deterioration of the paste-ups, recording their fading, peeling, and flaking off.
Third phase: sharing the love
During her initial residency, one of the subjects Lesley photographed brought her friend and fellow artist Liz Bradshaw – an accomplished large-scale drawing practitioner and researcher/lecturer based in Sydney. Interested in Testing Grounds as a site and a project, Liz applied to come down for one week to use the three metre by six metre walls of the Black Box to develop a series of site responsive drawings. From July 3 – 8, Liz worked in the Black Box, exhibiting her work-in-progress on the evening of Friday 7th. For several days of that week, Lesley joined Liz in the space, documenting Liz’s process as she worked.
Fourth phase: legacy
In August 2017 Lesley returned to her homeland Scotland. Before leaving she wanted to draw her paste-up project to a close. The pieces had survived the sun and rain and wind better than anyone had expected, and were still stuck strong to the concrete wall. Lesley decided to peel them down, of course documenting the process along the way.
Testing Grounds was sad to be losing the pictures and sad to be losing such a positive contributor to the Testing Grounds community. Lesley had been a regular fixture on site, not just on her documentation visits, but for openings, events, talks, as a participant in the ABC crit sessions, and just to drop by and say hello.
A proposal for how to continue the project on site in some other form was floated, settling on buying and framing photos of the paste-ups at the end of their life, as they were coming down from the walls. These would be photos of paste-ups of photos taken during Lesley’s initial residency. A return of sorts, but with new layers of history; showing the marks of time spent on site, time spent working together, and of the evolution of a body of work. These photos now hang on display along the back wall of the information booth – striking images in their own right, and a testament to the relationship between artist and site.
On 24th January, Lesley took out the Star Observer Art Prize as part of Midsumma Festival 2018, for the series of work shot at Testing Grounds while in residence in 2017. Developed into a portrait series called ‘S k i n s’ – some of which were pasted up on site over the previous year – the win further validates the value of the development time Testing Grounds is able to offer. As a team, we’re proud as punch for Lesley…
Words and images by Trent Griffiths, unless otherwise credited