The Aura of Boxing: The Black and White Series
10 March 2014
This review was originally published in NVA, Saturday 22 February 2014...click here for original
THE AURA OF BOXING: THE BLACK AND WHITE SERIES
Max Kandhola's exhibition at New Art Exchange marks only the beginning of the end of a two decade-long project documenting the sporting life and environment of Midlands born and based boxers. The Hyson Green gallery debuts his black and white works, blown up to huge proportions on walls of soft, colourless grey. Coinciding with publication of his book, The Aura of Boxing, filled with colourful, close cut and manipulated photographs, it is clear that the Nottingham offering is a selected one and suggests a crescendo of colourful imagery and format as the project moves on to Rich Mix in London and finally QUAD's Chocolate Factory, Derby.
The dynamism of the gym spills out of the Main Gallery space. Framed by the entrance, the overlay of giant, blurred forms are hung before even larger, edge worn prints. They speak of not only the repetitive and dedicated nature of a boxers' training, but also the layered nature of time on the sportsmen, as their strength grows then wanes. This also reflects pressures on the artist and his practice, undergoing pauses and revisions following a number of personal losses. Immersed in a sport with its foundations dug deep in aggression and bravado, Kandhola's work instead speaks in more refined terms, of finding the ritualistic nature of training, of the near spiritual purity found in the concentration of mind and body, and the sanctuary from local poverty and crime that many young men find at the gym. Bringing these figures into a gallery environment enhances this feeling of calmness, as contemplation of these images begins to feel twinned with the contemplation and concentration of the boxer as he beats repetition onto a punch bag. After a while, the colourless space and images begin to intensify these movements, as if slowing to a literal blow by blow account, catching every impact and bead of hard earned sweat.
There is an intimacy to these images, as Kandhola pushes his way between the boxer's gloves, and photographs them from all angles, notably in a series of images of Carl Froch, pictured quite literally from top to toe in four beautifully composed prints. This sense of closeness is enhanced by the display of the work as wallpaper-like giant prints, without glass or frames. There are no harsh reflections from overhead lighting, or barriers between print and wall, just a direct view onto the regimes of men, whose sport makes them renowned for fronts of showmanship and the theatrical. This contrast of show and intimacy, of persona and environment is felt throughout. While many might recognise Froch, whose face has appeared regularly in recent sports press, it is likely only the enthusiast who would know Julius Francis, Howard Clarke and Robert McCracken, whose forms and faces also make up this exhibition. Their power and personas are made large by the immersion of the viewer between these huge prints, and yet they are anonymous to the non-fan. In his writing Max denies the importance of the individual figure's persona in favour of a greater sense of environment, and yet simultaneously repeats their names and stories throughout. We are faced with the individual and the whole, fitting for a sport whose ethics are often criticised, yet whose individuals become local and international heroes.
Contrasts and confusion flourish in the Main Gallery, as faces and movements are blurred, conveying a sense of the endless slog of rounds waiting for the bell. This becomes more focused, literally, as the exhibition moves upstairs to the Mezzanine Gallery, where walls are filled with the faces of these men, cropped and striking in their scale and composition. Opinions and imagined narratives of men and their actions formed while looking downstairs are thrown off kilter as we come face-to-face with real individuals, blown up to painterly, majestic proportions.
Although black and white, these images as a whole step back from drama and absolutes, and instead offer a more complex and multifaceted view of a much maligned sport, their blurred lines mirroring the lack of certainties left in the mind of the viewer as they leave.