This month in Auckland, there’s a fantastic flurry of new works from photographer Russ Flatt, an artist who makes pictures that are profound, emotionally engaging, and slyly entertaining, all at once.
Flatt spent more than a decade shooting high-end fashion editorials in London and New York, before launching his art practice in New Zealand in 2013. He’s tall and narrow with big, serious eyes and you can sense a steely self-possession behind his quiet, careful way of speaking.
The first art works Flatt made are meticulous recreations of childhood memories to do with his English RNZAF engineer father, Maori mother and sister, all of whom had died within two years of each other. They’re carefully staged portraits, beautifully lit and technically skillful. But knowing they were deeply personal, he put them to one side until the time was right to exhibit them. Three years later, they’d form his second solo show, Paper Planes.
As a gay Maori man a small subset of an ethnic minority in a small country who’s spent much of his adult life abroad, Flatt’s probably used to feeling and thinking like an outsider.
He graduated from the University of Auckland’s Elam Art School with a postgraduate diploma in 2013, and his
end-of-year presentation was picked up by the Mangere Arts Centre for what would become his first solo show,Perceiving Identity.
A striking part of that show is a series of portraits of about 40 Maori and Pacific Island men, shot square-on and shirtless. “I was looking at the physiognomy of brown guys,” he says. “It was about the perception of brown guys within our country, and how skin colour can connect a group of people, but how individual we are. It was nice to do it and then lay them out and see the subtle differences in different gazes.”
His pictures aren’t always so serious or impersonal, though. Nationals, his third solo show, recalls Flatt’s time as a young competitive roller skater on Auckland’s North Shore. There are the spangly shirts and flared trousers, the grim-faced coach in a leather jacket and 80's moustache, the wide lapels and high, teased ponytails.
Looking at these pictures, I instantly remembered exactly how Skateland in Glenfield used to smell. “Like popcorny stale carpet,” Flatt supplies.
If I look longer, I remember the pressure of performing in your chosen sport or art, how overwhelming it could all get, and the nub of alienation at the heart of teenage endeavours. Mainly, though, they’re kind of hilarious pictures. “I’m glad you see that, because I feel like some of them are just so ridiculous,” Flatt says. “I think people maybe see a little bit of themselves in them, somehow.”
For the Auckland Festival of Photography, on now until June 24, Flatt was commissioned to create a new body of work. The judges liked one of his more provocative pictures from Paper Planes, one which shows a young boy hiding under his parents’ bed, as they fool around on top. “That gave me permission not to feel any constraints about what I want to make for them,” Flatt says.
He made three pictures, set around a dinner table, in a lounge and in a bedroom, that shows the family dynamic when a teenage boy and his school friend are caught exploring their sexuality. It’s uncomfortable. The parents look comically distraught. The boys look defiant and vulnerable and serene. The house is incredibly suburban and a 90s frosted hairstyle makes an appearance, daring you to laugh.
“When you think about memory and your childhood or teenage years, it’s usually the bad stuff, or things that happened that were quite hard, that come to mind,” Flatt explains. “I use those kind of thought processes, and then I twist it around and have some fun with it.”
On June 7, Flatt will open his fourth solo show at Tim Melville Gallery in Auckland, this time diving into memories of underage nightclubbing, and catching the night bus home. He thinks it’s his most powerful work yet.