The initial impression is of a cold world, a stark, black and white vision that has been trapped and pinned like a dream just before it fades from consciousness. Soft and blurred around the edges, light pouring through nooks and crannies, a surreal flatness in which all things carry the same weight, Vera Lutter’s monumental black and white photographs present a reality turned inside out. Hallowed and haloed, these negative images pulse in high contrast. Haunting.
Vera Lutter’s current exhibition at galerie Xippas, her first solo show in Paris, presents work from the last 10 years. Noted for her use of pinhole camera, or camera obscura, techniques, Lutter's “camera” could be a cargo container, her studio, or a room that she has constructed atop a New York apartment building. Within these structures she works in darkness, adjusting and monitoring the amount of light rays being allowed to pour through a pinhole and stain the photographic paper mounted opposite it. Over minutes, hours, or days Lutter tends to her work like an alchemist patiently waiting for that moment of magical transmutation in which lead becomes gold. The time, energy and effort necessary to produce these phantom memories are considerable and fraught with chance and happenstance.
Within 5 minutes, I know I like what I am seeing. Wandering through the long, rectangular salon at galerie Xippas, I am beguiled by the gorgeousness that pervades her work, a luxuriousness that coexists with the almost brutal formality of the monochromatic palette. Drained of the minutiae and detritus of every day life (a result of the camera obscura technique), Lutter's scenes take on a dreamlike timelessness in which the mundane becomes symbolic and narrative gives way to myth. A lure pulls us into the work again and again through the experience of light. The source is often ambiguous, illogical. At times it seems to emanate from outside the frame like a movie set where huge banks of halogen lights flood a night-time scene to create a new kind of day. At other times, the light glows from within the objects, whether they be buildings or water or industrial machinery, as if there was some inexplicable source of energy deep from within. The illusion in either case is disorienting and disquieting and suggests an OZ-like hand operating beyond our understanding.
In Erie Basin, Red Hook, I: July 25, 2003, a factory looms at water’s edge muted and abandoned like some forgotten behemoth. Gone is the clanking of machinery, the roar of production, and in its stead is an iconic echo to industrialization. There is a smoothness to the gritty industrial wasteland, like a stone worn sleek by the ocean. In Ca del Duca, Venice, XA: Decembe r8, 2007, the foreground presents a seamless expanse of gunmetal luminescence punctuated by smudges of shadow or reflected light on its surface - the canal, of course. This silvery mirror is both weightless and dense. I am seduced by its beauty and drawn into its depth. We experience this watery mirror again in Costa Rumpf, Luerssen Werft, Lemwerder: August 22, 1997; the corner of a walkway or platform juts from the lower right edge of the image suggesting a jumping-off point from which one could dive into this ethereal void. In the background, an industrial crane stands etched against the blackest of skies - like some construct on the moon searching for life in the outer reaches of outer space.
I am fooled by these images; confounded. I feel turned inside out. There is a scientific explanation but it does not seem to suffice. When the outside light enters the pinhole it makes a conic shape at the points meeting at the pinhole, forming later another conic shape, in reverse to the first one on the opposite wall in the darkened box or room. Lutter then captures this image on photographic paper. An exact replication of the outside world except that it appears in the negative. So that when we look at Lutter's photographs there is an existential angst produced by this fact, a sense of having walked through the looking glass to the side of the Other where reality as known is suddenly lost. The question begs to be asked: Is anything real or is the world, the precious world that I have clung to, simply a mirage, a trick of light?
This confusion, this reversal of all that is known, brings to mind the work of Rachel Whiteread. In viewing both Lutter and Whiteread, I have initially thought I understood that which was represented, I felt confident and nonplussed by the structure of the real that had been created. Ho-hum a sculpture of a building; ho-hum a photograph of a building. With both, as I explored further, I came to a cul-de-sac in which all my assumptions are dead-ended and I have to reverse direction. There is a moment of supreme disorientation in this turning and I cannot find my footing. What was empty becomes full; what was full evaporates. Negative is positive; positive is negative. The reversal of expectation creates a sense of having lost my mind; it is subtle, and even more so with Lutter than Whiteread, but it is profound. After the shocking "lie" contained in the work of each of these artists is discovered, there is a great freedom in having the known world obliterated. I find a quietness akin to awe.
I turn the corner of the gallery and walk into a room filled with scenes from downtown New York – Manhattan skyscrapers soar upward in vertical dominance; Times Square calls forth. Suddenly I envision the blinding, hot flash of an atomic bomb as it burns the city inside out and turns everything into a negative. I spin around the room feeling as though all of these images have come from that moment just after detonation…for a split second I think of the 9/11 bombings and wonder if these come from that day. But then I remember that those were not atomic explosions and there was no burning blast.
There is definitely something eerily apocalyptic at play in Lutter's work, close to sci-fi panic, like a night without end or a time vortex in which we look back from a far away and unidentifiable future. Certainly the camera obscura technique itself sets up nostalgia, a sense of a return to the way it was (way back when man first began to dream of the re-presentation of reality). Then there is the nostalgia prompted by the subject matter: the slow ebbing of the industrial age, and perhaps in a more profound way of urban life. But coupled with this nostalgia there is a foreboding emptiness that cannot be ignored; a distance that cannot be identified. The party is over and everyone has gone forever.
I return to the front room and revisit. Stopping in front of Costa Rumpf, Luerssen Werft, Lemwerder: August 22, 1997, I think that I could live with this piece day in and day out. The quietness of Lutter's images is seductive, meditative, and the beauty is nicely unemotional. It is truly that 3am experience in which the world has emptied out, the human rush and clamor is gone, and a velvety otherness envelopes the land.
(*Images: Vera Lutter, installation view galerie Xippas, Paris, 2009; Vera Lutter, Erie Basin, Red Hook, I: July 25, 2003; unique camera obscura, silver-gelatin print, 3 panels; 244x430.7 cm; Vera Lutter, Costa Rumpf, Luerssen Werft, Lemwerder: August 22, 1997; unique camera obscura, silver-gelatin print, 2 panels; 162.5c257.3 cm; Vera Lutter, Times Square I, New York: July 24, 2007; unique camera obscura, silver-gelatin print; 194.3x126.8 cm. All images ©Vera Lutter. Courtesy of galerie Xippas)