Varna Road, the Ikon Gallery’s exhibition of Janet Mendelsohn’s photography, is already one of the glittering highlights of Birmingham’s cultural year. John Kennedy gives us his verdict.
This highly-accessible exhibition occupies three of the upper-floor galleries, portraying a series of 53 photographic studies of characters, buildings and domestic interiors set in the blighted slum-clearance urban landscape of late-60s Balsall Heath, Birmingham. In both landscape and portrait framing, approximately 588mm x 437mm, all images are black and white, selected from an archive of over 3,000 negatives now in the care of the Cadbury Research Library. Janet Mendelsohn was an American student at this time, studying at Birmingham University. Her principal emphasis on, and later friendship with, a young prostitute, Kathleen, is the driving narrative of her intimate portraiture. She presents but doesn’t presume, reveals but not doesn’t exploit. Though the latter, for some, may be a thesis for conjecture.
The titles serve only to provide positional reference in brief, functional text – the inferences are in the eye of the beholder. The location street is ubiquitous. The visitor is first drawn by Mendelsohn’s camera peeping through ragged lace curtains from an upper-storey bedroom overlooking a dowdy, claustrophobic row of shops. The focal locus is a flashy chrome tail-finned Zodiac Mark III. It is incongruous, a vulgar ostentation – possibly the curb-prowling insinuation of a peacock pimp’s presence. The viewer feels bound to revise their perspective – are they colluding in the occupant’s curtain-twitching, peeping gaze? Is it out of idle curiosity or the anticipation of an impending unwelcome visitor?
Mendelsohn’s images provoke many reactions, extrapolations and, inevitably, judgmental ambiguities as the viewer juxtaposes both historical contexts and contemporary mores. For those visitors who lived in or knew the Balsall Heath/Varna Road loci, there is inevitably a sense of nostalgia, but equally a healthy distain for glib romanticism and a poke in the eye for fantasist Peaky Blinder patronage.
A number of images remain fixed in the departing visitor’s consciousness. The Asian gentleman, standing erect beneath a Hunts drinks poster. Above, a flighty, beach-lounging blonde promises – by proxy, we must assume – a “taste [of] paradise”.
Photograph 24, Street, is an elevated-angle shot of three young children idly chipping away at a crumbling terrace-house boundary wall. One, an Asian girl with ribboned pigtail. Another, a white girl in checked frock. Last, the youngest, no more than three, maybe four, gender unknown, is naked. Meanwhile, man is about to land on the Moon.
The Ikon provides complementary brief biographical notes and gallery plans. Also available is the detailed and lavishly-illustrated catalogue, priced £13. Esoteric singing lift access is available – it is the Ikon, after all!
Janet Mendelsohn: Varna Road runs at the Ikon Gallery until April 3. For more information, visit https://ikon-gallery.org/event/janet-mendelsohn/.