Untitled VI by Polly Borland Click for more photos

Polly Borland - SMUDGE

Untitled VI by Polly Borland

  • Untitled VI by Polly Borland
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  • By Polly Borland.
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Neil Balnaves admits he is perplexed by Polly Borland's photos of people disguised in shiny, bright or skin-textured lycra, wearing wigs, bunny ears and phallic bulges.

He might also wonder how Borland convinced musician Nick Cave, one of three models in her Smudge series, to pose for the photoshoot.

Balnaves, the former owner of entertainment company Southern Star and founder of the philanthropic Balnaves Foundation, describes Borland's photos as both menacing and funny.

''They are extraordinary because they challenge you instinctively with a reaction.''

One of Balnaves's gut reactions is fear - of the photographer.

''I'd sure hate to meet her in the dark,'' the 67-year-old says.

Borland's photos are part of We used to talk about love, an exhibition of 11 artists exploring the nature of love, which opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on January 31.

The exhibition features photography, sculpture, collage and video grouped into four subject areas.

To begin with the flesh features Borland's comically dressed models alongside Paul Knight's folded photographs of couples in bed and Angelica Mesiti's video of young people in the throes of rapture.

At first glance, it is hard to decipher what Borland's Smudge photos have to say on the topic of love.

''The more I get into the work, the more puzzled I am as to really what it is and what she is trying to say,'' Balnaves says.

Daniel Mudie Cunningham writes in the exhibition catalogue about an implied plushophilia in Borland's photos: ''By linking sex and toys (some appendages read as sex toys), their innocence is defiled and strangely regenerated. It is innocence with a hard-on.''

Cunningham contrasts the photos in Smudge with an earlier series The babies, which featured a fetish community of adults dressed as babies.

But Borland says her work is about love, rather than sexual deviancy.

''My work is very much about alienation and wanting to be loved,'' she says.

''I would not use the word fetish in describing my work but if someone else uses it I would say it is a metaphor for fringe dweller.''

Lonely or perverted, the figures in Smudge are a far cry from Borland's portrait of the Queen, taken in 2002 to mark the Golden Jubilee.

The gold backdrop featured in one of two official photographs was also used by Borland in her 1999 portrait of Monica Lewinsky who, like the Queen, wore pearls and a blue outfit.

Borland says the five-minute sitting with the Queen was difficult: ''It was very stressful not having enough time to make sure you had covered your arse.''

Asked how she came up with the Smudge series, she says: ''we played dress-up''.

Despite their anonymity, Borland says her models - Cave, fashion designer Sherald Lambden and fellow photographer Mark Vessey - brought their own ''ambience and atmosphere'' to the photoshoots.

Borland, who divides her time between Melbourne and Los Angeles, says the ambiguity surrounding her artwork is deliberate: ''I think everything embodies opposites and ugly and beauty co-exist together.''

She adds: ''I like to challenge people's comfort zones including my own. Life is ambiguous in every sense.''

The photographer also says she is not interested in the reaction of viewers to her work.

''It is none of my business how they react,'' she says.

''I create work for myself and if other people get something from it then that is a bonus.''

The show's curator, Natasha Bullock, says Borland's photos toy with a desire to know what lies beneath the wigs and costumes.

''Love functions in a related way,'' she says.

''Borland's Smudge series with all of its playful exuberance, imitates the heightened emotions, the funny, awkward origins of love's beginnings.''

Bullock says the artists examine different types of love, from deep sadness to joyful ecstasy, sexual love and family bonds.

''I don't think there are any definitive answers when it comes to love,'' she says.

We used to talk about love is the seventh in a series of contemporary exhibitions supported by the Balnaves Foundation, and includes a series of films, Ain't there anyone here for love?, exploring how love has been depicted in cinema.

An integral part of We used to talk about love involves reshaping the Belgiorno-Nettis galleries in which the exhibition will be displayed.

''I wanted to create an experience for the viewer that reflected the emotional arc of love's expression from its flirtatious, playful beginnings to its potentially rough ending,'' Bullock says.

''With open passageways and discreet pathways we hope the exhibition experience mimics the push and pull effect of love's emotions.''

We used to talk about love is at the Art Gallery of NSW from January 31 to April 21.