I’ve been meaning to write about Kieth Arnatt for ages, but now Christian Patterson has beaten me to it. I first saw some of Arnatt’s work years ago in England and at the time it left me somewhat bemused, but I think it obviously had some effect, because I kept coming back to it over the years. I’m specially taken by his Notes from Jo - photographic records his late wife’s Post-It note messages, usually left for Arnatt on his return from the pub.
Martin Parr wrote a good little article on Arnatt in the Guardian:
"Keith Arnatt was a well-known conceptual artist in the early 70s - his films, installations and photo records were exhibited at the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One show, at the Tate in 1972, became notorious: he displayed the enrolment cards of all the staff members - they then had to be taken down because security guards objected to their photographs being displayed without permission. It was the kind of fuss Arnatt enjoyed; he liked the unpredictable and acts of provocation.Arnatt also made striking still-lifes from things collected on the local rubbish dump, among other things. There is a simple straight forwardness to Arnatt’s work, and yet each time you look at one of his pictures it opens your eyes to something. His concepts seem at times so obvious and yet you find yourself going: huh – how come I never thought of that or looked at those things that way before. There’s also a book produced in conjunction with the recent show at the Photographers Gallery – “I’m a Real Photographer – Keith Arnatt Photographs 1974-2002”
Then, in 1973, he was introduced to the work of Walker Evans, August Sander and Diane Arbus, and never looked back. His colleague, David Hurn, at Newport College of Art - where Arnatt was teaching sculpture - had opened a department of documentary photography. Arnatt was intrigued and inspired by the images. For the next 30 years he worked as a photographer, first in black and white, then changing to colour in the mid-80s. He was prolific - making some 20 series of photographs - until forced to give up in 2004, dogged by illness. All the while he continued to earn his living by teaching, as he sold his work only rarely.
It is difficult to categorise Arnatt or place him in recent photographic history; he approached projects with the curiosity of one immersed in the art practice of an earlier generation. Yet his images appear very modern. Notes From My Wife is a case in point. They are jottings and reminders written by his wife, Jo, in the early 90s. Soon after, she was struck down by a brain tumour and Arnatt nursed her until her death in 1996. He decided to collect the most poignant of the notes and photographed 18 of them. Taken out of context and blown up, they become surreal. This was Arnatt's strength as a photographer: he understood how the smallest detail or observation could be transformed by the act of isolation….
Arnatt's driving force has been more conceptual than documentary, and a decade or so later his artistic strategies are flourishing. Even so, his photographic work has remained largely unrecognised. He has not enjoyed the benefits of gallery representation or high-profile exhibitions since his days as a conceptual artist - the only exception being the British Council, which regularly toured and displayed his photographs. What a pleasure it is, then, to see I'm A Real Photographer, Arnatt's new exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery. It provides a timely opportunity to explore and understand what an important artist and photographer Arnatt is, and how his ideas have changed from outsider practice to mainstream thinking."