Stephen Gill, Best Before End

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Nobody Books (here) in association with Archive of Modern Conflict Books (here). Hardcover, 72 pages, with 43 color photographs. Includes a text by Will Self. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As a knowing symbol of our increasingly frantic modern existence, the energy drink is a scary reflection of who we are. It’s over-caffeinated, extra stimulated, empty of nutrition, designed to be intensely short term, and more than likely toxic. Its immense popularity as beverage category is a testament to the times we live in – all we want is a jolt, an extension of time, a burst of increased attention that will carry us through the party, the exams, or the all nighter. Paired with booze or drugs, it keeps the high going almost indefinitely, long after a normal wave of energy wears out.

Stephen Gill’s newest pictures combine the jittering pulse of the energy drink with snapshots of inner city East London, creating a psychedelic fever dream that crackles across the pages of this photobook. Each negative has been partially processed and then soaked in one of the fizzling carbonated brews available there (from the obvious Red Bull to the more aspirationally named Rockstar Xdurance, Man Power, n-gine, Relentless Rehab, and Pussy), softening the photographic emulsion to the point that the colors shift, the surfaces melt, and the images become torn and distorted. The resulting pictures are a fragment of everyday life seen through a haze of cacophonous visual static and chemical feedback.

Gill is no stranger to this kind of unlikely physical intervention. He’s turned folded toilet paper and crumpled betting slips into found sculpture, and more recently buried prints in the dirt and inserted random found objects into the back of the camera itself, always trying to bring a sense of local immediacy to his photographs. There is a conceptual kinship here with the work of Matthew Brandt (dissolving landscapes in lake water, adding gathered dust to gum bichromate emulsions, crafting dinosaurs out of La Brea tar), but with a bit more chance and serendipity at work. Gill is connecting his photographs to their physical reality in an experimental way, happily unsure of what might emerge.

What’s exciting about these photographs is that they visually replicate the manic disorientation of buzzing just a little too hard. While the underlying images show us fleeting hints of backyard fences, leafy tree branches, members of a band (with drums, bass, and other equipment, one player in a sparkly leotard), liquor bottles, and shadowy portraits/nudes (one breastfeeding), the pictures themselves only hint at experiential meaning. It’s actually the all-over spots, the wispy peeling films, the dry cracked washes, the negative ghosts, and the misaligned colors (almost like 3D) that create the throbbing, swerving, seeing stars mood. As the energy drink takes hold, the everyday becomes fluid and abstract, time getting squished and sloshed around in a heightened sense of pinprick awareness.

There’s something quietly apocalyptic about Gill’s vision of our modern life – everything we might recognize as normal is melting right before our eyes and we’re too wound up or gassed out to care very much. But when the colors shift and the scene swims in just the right ways, glimpses of something surprisingly lyrical and dreamlike pop forward. In Gill’s pictures, our world is undeniably fizzing, but it’s still creating beauty in places we might not expect to find it.

Collector’s POV: Stephen Gill is represented by Christophe Guye Galerie in Zurich (here) and Gun Gallery in Stockholm (here). His prints can also be found at The Photographers’ Gallery in London (here). Gill’s work has little secondary market history so gallery retail (or direct connection to the artist) remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Stephen Gill, Archive of Modern Conflict Books, Nobody Books

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