Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sitting Under A Tree In Paradise

Our city can seem a sprawling, unknowable, alienating place. We find comfort in the familiar, we build a personal urban psychology where the geography of the city is scattered with places where we can feel safe and secure in a vast anonymous built environment. Those places where some of us find our comfort and safety are the open spaces, unclaimed by the built environment we claim for ourselves small patches of wild, untamed or depopulated green space. In the manner of landscape design most of these seemingly empty and wild green spaces are in fact managed areas, we assume they contain only a minor level of human touch but in most cases they are heavily worked and created to give the impression of an open and untouched oasis in an otherwise fast moving and oppressive city. It is those spaces that Justin Coombes explores and creates his photographic record of what he titles the ‘urban pastoral’, in these commons, gardens, yards, allotments and quiet street corners edged with trees we can stop, relax and reconnect with the natural world and tune ourselves back into the rhythms of the seasons.
In Coombes photographs of the spaces we can reflect on the tension created by city life, in these places where we find a slower pace and point of relaxation there is also a tension, we must sometimes share our place of calm. In his series of photographs we feel this tension, in a park bounded by tower blocks the night descends on a beautiful tree, the final moments of daylight penetrate gaps between the branches and leaves but underneath a small group of potentially menacing individuals lurk. In another park partially obscured by scrubby grass sits a person relaxing but visible in the distance through the fence is a neglected light industrial building and in a suburban back garden the light from a window breaks from the house and casts a tree with its light, it is a comforting sight but outside the frame of light it is surrounded by darkness. Next to a back yard a seemingly empty street sees the movements of people through the windows of their house but outside and unseen a fox tears at a rubbish bag and scatters the scavenged material across the pavement. These scenes by Coombes are reminiscent of the work of Gregory Crewdson, but unlike Crewdson’s seemingly fictional depictions Coombes photographic constructions recreate something that feels very honest and real and just as unsettling.Coombes four images of allotments are devoid of people and do not seem to be as staged as the other images on view, any staging has been created by the allotment users and Coombes has arrived after the event to document this human action in a landscape now emptied. Once more these views show the city moving into night, in one scene the City of London can be seen in the distance, the powerful presence of the towers of the cities financial institutions balanced by the rudimentary and impromptu structures created on the allotments, scavenged sheets of plastic and wire are cobbled together for fencing and plastic bottles cut in half are used as cheap cloches for the plants. We see a self sufficient and adaptable culture, discarded materials are re-appropriated for further use, barbed wire and sheds made from scrappy panels of wood and in the grass are scattered pieces of unused materials ready to be used once more when the owner returns. In the dark of the allotments the light from streets in the distance seep in to the scene, this is the city reaffirming its presence in the calm of the open spaces its light does not saturate but slowly mutters its presence into the quiet.

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