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Deconstructions by Jonny Briggs

Jonny Briggs dissembles and rebuilds relics of the past in Deconstructions, on now at Kristin Hjellegjerde gallery.

Jonny Briggs' teeth underbiting a photo of his great grandmother. Part of the Deconstructions exhibition.
Prism (artist’s teeth under-biting a photo of his great-grandmother), Deconstructions 2022 © Jonny Briggs

A complex past is reinterpreted in Deconstructions, a new solo show by Jonny Briggs.

Briggs combines photography, performance and sculpture to explore issues around childhood and identity.

Fragmented faces and limbs appear embedded within maze like compositions, disrupted by precisely cut-out shapes.

Deconstructions, Briggs’ first solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde gallery, refers to the ways in which the artist physically dissembles and rebuilds relics of the past.

It also references Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction as an attempt to render justice.

While many of Briggs’ works imply violence, they are primarily concerned with the breaking apart of rigid structures to create space for new perspectives.

“All of us have experienced aspects of our lives where we have not been in control,” says Briggs.

“Making art gives me agency, it allows me to externalise certain feelings and to find a way of moving forward.”

Jonny Briggs' ear bursting through a photograph of his father
Insight (artist’s ear bursting through photo of their father), 2022 © Jonny Briggs

Deconstructions of a complex past

In Deconstructions, archival family portraits provide an entry point into a painful past.

Briggs endeavours to use this entry point to understand and reinterpret through his adult perspective.

His practice centres around a process of repetition.

Briggs continually dredges up and deconstructs the past in order to make sense of and purge past traumas.

He describes his relationship to the ‘family portrait’ as deeply suspicious.

By their nature, family portraits are performative and often misleading.

Growing up he found his role as the only son among four sisters to be heavily prescribed and later restrictive to the development of his sense of self as a queer man.

By re-contextualising and fragmenting the family portraits memorialising that time, Briggs is able to reshape the dominant narrative that ran counter to his lived experience and find a sense of release.

A cut photograph re-photographed with Briggs' eye staring through. Part of the Deconstructions exhibition.
Blink 1 (cut photograph, re-photographed with Briggs’ eye staring through), 2022 © Jonny Briggs

Complex tensions

The theme of reshaping the narrative is perhaps most obvious in Blink 1 and Blink 2.

In both pieces the archival image is barely visible.

It is encased within multiple layers of black-and-white mount assembled in a striped, rectangular pattern.

The photograph sits at the centre of each work, offering a partial view of a person’s face, almost as if they were peeping through a letter box.

Briggs has punched a small hole in the figure’s only visible eye.

Through this hole, if you look very closely, you can glimpse Briggs’ own eye from where he has held the image to his face and re-photographed it.

This not only creates a collision of time and space, but also sets up a complex tension between the act of looking and being seen that runs throughout many of the works.

The cuts that Briggs makes also play on the idea of concealment and revelation.

The white space is both an erasure and a site of possibility.

A line cut through the frame down to the centre of the image simultaneously destroys the regularity of the composition and further obscures the figure.

It also symbolically releases the work from its strict structure.

‘”My resistance to the frame comes from a childhood feeling of confinement in terms of gender, trying to find my place within the family and to live up to my father’s expectations,” explains Briggs.

A photograph of the artist's great-grandfather with Briggs' ear bursting through.
Ties (photograph of great-grandfather re-photographed with my ear bursting through), 2022 © Jonny Briggs

Brutal masculinity

Other pieces further explore traditional ideas of masculinity.

In one portrait of two young boys, two horizontal lines have been cut out of each face extending from their eyes upwards.

These cut out sections have then been stuck outside the frame.

Conceptually the idea of such physical mutilation – the gauging out of children’s eyes – is unbearably brutal.

However, the violence of the act is disguised by the formal aesthetic – the black and white colour palette and straight lines.

Briggs notes this formal aesthetic brings to mind the strict tailoring of a traditional man’s suit.

In many ways, it is a familiar story of brutal masculinity passing for the polite and respectable – or paternal.

However, rather than positioning himself as the victim, Briggs re-enacts the trauma.

Through the symbolic mutilation of the image, he attempts to understand not just the impacts on the child but also the conditions which breed this kind of behaviour.

A photography of Briggs' great-grandfather, re-photographed with his finger. Part of the Deconstructions exhibition.
Point (photograph of Briggs’ great-grandfather, re-photographed with his finger), 2022 © Jonny Briggs

Reclaiming agency

The release Briggs achieves through his art comes not just from acts of violence, but also humour.

In some works, his body parts appear to point fun at the predictability of the portrait.

In Point, the artist’s finger intrudes on the formality of the archival photograph.

It extends down the centre of the figure’s forehead to the tip of a cut-out triangle shape.

The effect is almost as if the finger has magically made the space appear and is pointing playfully at its erasure while also revealing the artist’s power over the gaze.

We see what he wants us to see, even if it is nothing.

Here, as in other works, Briggs might be performing for the image but he is also the one creating it.

This allows him to not only reclaim a sense of agency but also put forward a more sensitive approach to dealing with the past that asserts the importance of multiple perspectives.

Deconstructions exhibition details

Deconstructions is on display at Kristin Hjellegjerde gallery, London, until January 21, 2023.

The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 6pm.