Clare Willmey’s photography captures flux: the continual, dynamic transfigurations of mind and body. She trusts her subject to reveal itself, conscious of the potential for interplay between the subject and its environment. What often emerges is a vigorous tableau of the emotional and physical aspirations that lie below the surface.
There is also that mythic quality that abides the observer-artist. In a high-tensile series shot in Germany, for instance, the bald and naked subject (Willmey) evolves within a confined space, contorting and flexing like a hatchling at the point of birth, till she reaches a resolution of her quest, then she performs a haunting ablution, washing her bald head as if of afterbirth. In her energetic hallway series, on the other hand, she utilises the inherent neurosis of confined spaces, capturing a humorous but poignant journey towards catharsis.
Willmey’s sense of callisthenic physicality, poetic gesture and juxtaposition transforms her settings into sentient counterparts that aid or inspire alternative journeys. Yet she restrains her lens from hogging the grandiose possibilities on offer, compacting things instead into minimally pivotal statements that are at once beautiful and mysterious.
Her regal Swan Princess, for instance, simply fords a grassed stream, spreading swan’s down feathers on the rippling waters, conjuring the essence of the regal bird, appeasing the elements, shaming the destructive, wrenching hope out of the morass. The magnificent classicism of the piece comes from Willmey’s shrewd eye for contrast and her subject’s thespian acuity. In Snow White, the same subject transmutes into a supine victim of style – her tiara is cast aside and her regal aura is further undermined by a pack of cigarettes.
And, by way of symbolic extension, Snow White transmutes further into a beautiful lady pressing her all against a stack of computer minitors bearing alphabets. Her gecko-like disposition reverts to the contemplative passion of Swan Princess, despite the inertia of the objects of her designs. And she seems to be teasing out the souls of the dead monitors.
Willmey’s inordinate ability to externalise emotion is rare. Her modernity dwells seemingly on a powerful sense of classical myth, causing a surreal iridescence to occur, effortlessly, and her sense of unapologetic abandon and purpose underlines the genius.
Her recent London exhibition, Transmutation, was in the wake of Gary Clarke’s Acqua Felice, a magnificent blueprint of magic realism, and the organic interfacing of these two great artists may well transform the language of art photography.
Note: Claire Willmey: Transmutation was first published as an exhibition essay to accompany Willmey’s Pentapus organised exhibition at The Others, Stoke Newington, London (June 2004)