michelle charles art

‘Secret Remedies’ - Steve Edwards


For this exhibition at the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society artist Michelle Charles presents a range of her images of ordinary things. The assembled art works are divided into two groups.

Photograms of glass bottles are mounted in sequences on the walls, and old books, emblazoned with a painted motif, are exhibited in the glass display cases. In both instances the items selected - bottles and books - come from another time. Charles' objects recall the past through it's worn out residues and traces.

Charles' work seems to revolve around questions of health and hygiene, absence and presence. Many of her paintings and drawings that are not included in this exhibition depict the objects of domestic cleaning such as a dustpan and brush, or items of personal hygiene in the form of soaps and hand-soap dispensers. She has produced paintings of household cures such as Calamine Lotion or Milk of Magnesia, and an endless series of glasses of milk.

In addition, there are her ubiquitous images of medicine bottles of the type once familiar. These bottles contained patent medicines or ‘cure alls’, these were often dubious substances sold to treat a variety of ailments. The title of this exhibition - Secret Remedies - is taken from a book of that name published in 1909, which records many of these medicines.

These work always seems to posit an absent body. It is this body, and the viewer can't help but imagine it as their own, that swallows the milk or medicine, which handles the dustpan and books, or applies the soaps to it's skin. All of these are objects to be picked up and handled, and they suppose closeness to the material body. In some way her selected subjects all imply a body faced with contamination; it is to be cleansed, cured and built up.

Charles’ works can be seen, in this light, as images of human frailty and finality. These themes are echoed in the present exhibition where images of medicine bottles and soaps appear repeatedly. The books themselves seem to suggest associations of death and decay, in the way that dusty old second-hand bookshops often do. The books Charles works with are all old economics texts, dead theories that once prophesised a land of milk and honey. Painted onto their boards are surrogate images of human presence - soap or cure all bottles. The closeness and contact leads the viewer to a chain of connections between the self and decay.

The photogram is suited to this theme of intimacy and infection. Photograms are images produced by projecting light through an object that has been placed in direct contact with photochemical paper. When this light-sensitive paper is developed the light that has passed through transparent, or translucent, surfaces produces an image on the same scale as the object in question. The photogram makes an image from the shadow of its subject, drawing up as close to the literal object depicted as any picture can get.

They attribute a palpable presence to things Camera-less photographs like this were often the subjects of the earliest experiments with the medium. The eighteenth-century experiments of Thomas Wedgewood and Sir Humphrey Davy were of this type. While W.H.F. Talbot, Sir John Herschel and Anna Atkins often made pictures in the 1840s by placing flat, diaphanousand transparentobjects such as leaves, lace, or a butterfly's wing directly onto sensitised paper.

These experimentalists could not help feeling that the objects uncannily reproduced themselves. Some of the first experiments with photography in modern art also took the form of photograms. These pictures made in the 1920s by Lazlo Moholy Nagy and others emerged out of a fascination with the scientific dimensions of photography.

Technical processes such as the X-ray that made the human body transparent to medical inspection fascinated these artists, who associated the scientific image technologies with a new, rational and progressive world.

The photograms made by Michelle Charles are much less utopian. Even more than her paintings on books, these images draw on themes of closeness, proximity and touch. Her works seem to be driven by an attempt to close the gap between the thing represented and the thing itself. The photograms, without even mediating negatives, seem to make the bottles immediately present to the viewer's hand.

All of Charles’ work plays off this proximity to the body, and I take it that this contact between the object depicted and the photographic paper provides a vivid metaphor for this odd intimacy. We feel the proximity of the object and the sensitive paper as if it were a visceral contact. Here light and glass fuse, producing an image that is at once a body and a substance to be internalised by that body.

But we know that these medicines ultimately failed their users. These doubtful fluids could not halt the ravages of ageing and illness. They will serve us no better. Charles’ images stand, in this setting, as monuments to inadequate knowledge, mourning and loss. They point to our desire for the universal cure, and the inability of modern society to deliver one.

The bottles are now empty, their weird and wonderful contents consumed long ago. The chemical concoctions that remain belong to that other modern 'cure all' the photographic image. It ought to be apparent from these artworks that utopia will not take the form of pills or pictures.

This essay was published by The Museum of The Royal Pharmaceutical Society: Michelle Charles “Secret Remedies”, London, 2001.

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