“When historical visual motifs are used in a contemporary photographic subject… they act as a confirmation that contemporary life carries a degree of symbolism and cultural preoccupation parallel with other times in history, and art’s position of being a chronicler of contemporary fables is asserted.”— Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph As Contemporary Art (2004)
These photographs demonstrate Parnell’s reflections on the transitory and fugitive aspects of life. Working primarily as a portraitist, Parnell’s work is concerned with the production of narrative meaning. She is particularly interested in allegory and ‘the shadow of forces unseen’ (her expression) within the frozen moment of photograph. The appearance and visibility of women in midlife is a recurrent theme in her work and through a process of re-working visual codes (some of them well known) she invites a reflection on the degree to which the body and its appearance in the world is constrained by convention and design. This series (which can be seen as a triptych) focuses on women who have experienced life-threatening illness. In one image a derelict environment becomes an alien setting, oppressively underscoring the frailty
of the physical world and the insecurity of the human subject. In another image a beautiful figure floats in a stagnant pool. Individual narratives are transposed into an allegorical form in which the gaze of the subject seems to acknowledge audience as a part of their experience of self and the construction of selfhood. Personal trials and their existential trace in the photographic frame become dreamlike scenarios. Parnell evokes a sense of other-worldliness, the unseen behind the seen, the transcendent and symbolic within the everyday. As these images approach the scale of history painting their narrative meaning increases in a way that invites comparison with other media including film or theatre. Drawing on Pre-Raphaelite imagery, the fusion of past types, the work sits on top of a history of art and representation to provide a variant of modern life.
from catalogue notes
The Light Gallery, London, 2007
Pete Smith, Senior Lecturer
University of West London