Richard Billingham: Order Out of Chaos
Order Out of Chaos
24 February – 25 March 2017, at Art Exchange, Colchester
“My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew. My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she smokes a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but he doesn’t want to be like him.” Richard Billingham, 1996
Art Exchange is delighted to bring together photographs and video from Richard Billingham's iconic ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ series. Intended as studies for his art school paintings, Richard Billingham’s photographs of family life catapulted him to fame in the late 1990s. With their refreshingly direct approach, the art world hadn’t seen anything like them. As one reviewer of his first show said, “Billingham’s images don’t just evolve the genre, they smash their way through to another kind of vérité encounter”.
Richard Billingham’s snap-shot technique allows him to capture dramatic moments as Liz tightens her fist into a ball, or Ray hangs in space as he falls from a chair. In another photograph Ray inevitably reaches out for a pint; the family photographs on the wall behind him reminding us of the impact his drinking has on those closest to him. But there are also moments of love and tenderness as Liz and Ray hug, or a kitten is nurtured back to life. Time spent patiently looking allows Billingham to bring us beautifully composed images with seeming ease, such as Jason elegantly smoking in his dressing gown, his relaxed pose suggesting a life beyond the flat’s grubby walls.
As Billingham moves about his home, his family barely seem conscious of his camera. Behind its lens, the act of photographing allows Billingham a certain detachment from the chaotic life around him. Yet there is also a sense of the lens probing, with a curiosity of wanting to know more about the people he clearly loves.
Billingham tells us, “When I started, I was just doing photographs to paint from, and that’s why they look set up. But occasionally I’d do a photograph that wasn’t set up, and when I would see it back from the chemist it would be a bit more shocking or something – I could see my dad in a different light. And then I started taking the photographs more and more, just out of my own curiosity.”
Once they had featured in an exhibition, Billingham stopped photographing his family – the impulse would never be the same. Instead, he made short video films and in 1998 brought us ‘Fishtank’. Screened on TV, the Billinghams were channelled directly into our sitting rooms. Louisa Buck tells us, “Billingham’s TV debut pushes you so close to his fighting, drinking, low-income family that it hurts. His photographs have always wrong-footed any neat interpretation, and now Fishtank uses a camcorder to up the emotional ante with an often excruciating, sometimes exquisite fusion of intimacy and objectivity. It’s a strange sensation to scrutinize mother Liz as she puts on her makeup, or to be made to linger on the ravaged face of father Ray. But Billingham doesn’t ask for your sympathy or empathy – his work is neither soap opera nor social documentary. In this film, flies on the wall tend to get swatted”.
Other videos in the exhibition focus on Ray turning sleepily in bed, or Liz finding a moment of escapism as she watches matinees on TV. Once again, we find ourselves being forced to consider our own strengths and vulnerabilities alongside those of Ray, Liz and Jason. All of a sudden, we are all too aware of what it is to be human.
Jess Twyman, curator of Art Exchange tells us, “I have wanted to work with Richard Billingham for years, perhaps because of the conflicting need to be close to his family and to find detachment that’s present in his work. I am particularly excited to be bringing together photographs and videos from the ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ era – something that hasn’t happened often.”
This exhibition has been made possible with the support and guidance of the Anthony Reynolds Gallery and Artangel.