Sophy Rickett is an artist working with photography, film, text and archives. Known primarily as a photographic artist and exhibiting internationally since the late 1990s, Rickett’s work has developed from a conceptual examination of the condition of photography itself into a multi-layered consideration of the ways in which meaning is generated, encompassing complex exhibition presentations of photographs, texts and objects, as well as artist books. She is currently developing a new project exploring the landscape, history and legacies of the Ball Clay industry in Devon and a research programme exploring the creative potential of artistic interventions in the museum conservation process. Parafin will present Rickett’s first solo exhibition at the gallery in 2024.
Rickett’s early work eschewed the then-dominant focus on everyday or realist subject matter and instead addressed the tension between narrative and abstract visual experience. As Mark Durden wrote, ‘Sophy Rickett is absorbed in the limitations and partiality of photographic representation – her photography is a photography replete with missing parts, gaps, absences and voids.’
Much of her early work took landscape as its subject. However, unlike much landscape photography’s insistence of capturing a ‘natural’ spectacle, Rickett’s work often depended on an enhanced sense of artificiality. She depicted marginal or ‘unnatural’ public spaces – such as playing fields or roadside verges – and used conspicuously theatrical lighting effects to unsettle the idea of place.
Landscape and the natural environment have remained important themes within her practice, in particular the way landscape is shaped through human agency, even by the act of picturing it. Increasingly she has attempted to capture a sense of being in a landscape rather than simply depicting it. Additionally, Rickett is interested in the mobilisation of each as an aesthetic resource as well a physical one, and the various cultural, political and practical uses to which they can be put.
Ambiguity continues to be an important strategy in Rickett’s practice. The series Nature Studies (2009), which pair black and white images of an owl with views looking through branches and foliage, illustrates her approach. Her ‘nature studies’ are in fact examinations of de-natured subjects. The owl, the archetypal nocturnal bird, was actually photographed during the day, with the image then manipulated in the darkroom to make it look like night. Moreover, the bird is not wild but photographed in an owl sanctuary. The trees are not illuminated by an ecstatic sunrise or sunset but by artificial street lights.
In a 2005 interview with Charlotte Cotton, Rickett questioned whether ‘a photograph of something necessarily has to be about that thing it depicts.’ It is perhaps a defining consideration of her work. Her ambitious film installation, To The River (2011), does not show the Severn Bore which is its ostensible subject, but instead focusses on the spectators gathered expectantly beneath a full moon to witness it. Equally, the framed works which form part of the project combine found archival images and scientific diagrams with snippets of text, thereby further distancing the actual experience of a natural phenomenon.
To The River was the first project in which Rickett appropriated existing visual material and used it within her own work. Increasingly, this has been an important strategy for her. The series Objects in The Field (2013) and Death of a Beautiful Subject (2015) use photographs made by, respectively, the astronomer Dr Roderick Willstrop and the artist’s father to create new works. Rickett has also increasingly integrated images and texts – personal (seemingly autobiographical), oblique, poetic, narratives – to create a series of complex installations and artist books.
This is exemplified by her recent project The Curious Moaning of Kenfig Burrows (2019). The Curious Moaning explores the life and work of Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn, a Welsh photographer and astronomer active at the end of the 19th Century. Through photography and text, Rickett charts her journey towards making sense of the Dillwyn Llewelyn family’s sprawling archive. However, right from the start, the objectivity of Rickett’s ‘investigation’ is corrupted by an idiosyncratic approach, where findings from original research conducted at the British Library are combined with chance encounters, subjective associations and miscommunication. Rickett attempts to establish links between the Dillwyn Llewelyn’s remote world of Victorian privilege, their use of photography, and her own experience of life, work and photography in 21st Century Britain. She speaks of ‘circling around the subject’, of ‘circling and revisiting the same themes, over and again’, and says: ‘There’s something reassuring about [this process]; the sense of a negotiation between me and the world that is alive, ongoing, unresolved. And art – or this work that I do – is a form of navigation.'
Sophy Rickett (born 1970, UK) studied at the Royal College of Art and is currently a Senior Lecturer at the London College of Communication. Recent solo and two-person exhibitions include ‘Everything Is A Bird’ (with Bettina von Zwehl), Laure Genillard Gallery, London (2021), ‘Cupid and the Curious Moaning of Kenfig Burrows’, Glynn Vivian Gallery, Swansea (2019), ‘Album 31 and other works’ (with Bettina von Zwehl), Fotogalleriet, Oslo and Library of Birmingham (2015), ‘Objects in the Field’, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford (2014) and Brancolini Grimaldi, London (2013-14) and Arnolfini, Bristol (2012). Recent artist’s books include ‘The Curious Moaning of Kenfig Burrows’ (GOST, 2019) (shortlisted for the 2020 Krazsna Kraus Awards) and ‘The Death of a Beautiful Subject’ (GOST, 2015).
Recent group exhibitions include‘ A Rose is A Rose Is A Rose’, Hestercombe House, Taunton (2022), ‘The Forest’, Parafin, London (2021), ‘London Nights’, Museum of London (2018), ‘Œuvre exposée‘, Musée d’Arts de Nantes, France (2018), ‘Into The Woods: Trees in Photography’, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, (2017), Kochi Muziris Biennale, Kerala (2017), ‘Look’, Tate Liverpool (2015) and the New Forest Pavilion, 54th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, (2011).
Rickett’s work is included in many collections internationally including the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Government Art Collection, London, Centre Pompidou, Paris, FRAC Alsace, Musée des Beaux Art, Nantes, Museum of Visual Arts, Leipzig, and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaundengo, Turin.