by Kara Q. Smith
Certainly science is central to the methodical processes witnessed in Science of Sight: Alternative Photography at Haines Gallery. This is a science of chemicals, of alchemy, of an Otherworld. Light reacts: transgressing the limits of minuscule holes, meeting new levels of exposure.
More than the fundamental techniques needed to produce a photographic image, Science of Sight seeks to expose something less literal: the mental faculties of sight, a vision evocative of memories and dreams. And it is here, where past techniques capture a contemporary social ethos. Perhaps then, this Science is less a re-creation than it is a re-imagining: an anachronistic rebellion of sorts.
Begging for a soundtrack when one views them, John Chiara’s work defies any existing presentation standard I know of with his jaggedly cut photographic prints, stained with uneven chemistry and black smudges. Nonetheless, his images float (from lack of matting) in their white frames as well as on the gallery wall to remind us of a sort of Whistler-esque nocturne that pastorally reminds me of dreams or memories. Emerging from his self-made large-scale camera that he hauls around on the back of his truck, his work embodies a special space in landscape imagery that is emotional and deep, shadowy and reminiscent. Once taken, there is no way to recreate the exact moment of capture.
Wendy Small, 2 dancers, 2 wings from the Micro Managed series, 2004, Photogram on Luminos charcoal paper, 20 x 16 inches / Frame: 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery.
Working with a more intimate interpretation of landscape, Wendy Small intentionally pieces together remnants (barrel of monkeys and all) of her extant environment to create her organized and decorative photograms. Visually resembling an x-ray-meets-mandala, her prints abstract their actual contents to merge micro with macro. At first glance, I was reminded of popular vinyl silhouettes (of birds, of trees, or chandeliers) sold in American decorative culture (read: Urban Outfitters). Upon closer inspection, these pieces are so carefully executed that her motifs elevate the existence of the banal objects making up her material life snapshots creating a hyper-personal symbolism that implores viewers to spend more time in front of them.
Perhaps perfectly curated, on the wall opposite of Small’s are Binh Danh’s daguerreotypes printed on reflective, mirror-life surfaces. Taken in Cambodia, several of his pieces depict various Khmer Temples. These religious sites are comprised of intricate moldings, figurative sculptures and calculated architecture that is easily lost on any lay viewer. However, such temple intricacies literally and figuratively mirror Small’s mandalas: A sort of monument to history, whether collective or personal.
Largely, the most striking aspect of Danh’s work is the reflective surface. One has to move up and down, left and right, to view the image etched on the mirror surface in its fullest extent, always trying to avoid one’s own reflected image. Almost impossible to do with the salon-style hanging of his work, the viewer seems intentionally inserted to Danh’s narrative, not so much as to make any passerby feel invited to his narrative, but seemingly to emphasize a viewer’s dominance over the historical subjects, rendering these temples as nothing more than images in an art historical survey, waiting to be inserted as relevant to Western narratives.
Kara viewing Binh Danh installation with coffee and iPhone, 2011. Courtesy the writer.
Undoubtedly I had one favorite piece in the exhibition. Next to Abelardo Morell’s View of the Brooklyn Bridge From Bedroom, 2009, is another one of his brilliantly executed camera obscura pieces depicting a bookshelf as its central focal point. Dozens of volumes about travel, deities and Eastern culture fill the rustic structure. Hand woven rugs invite the curious viewer into the space of this seemingly humble reading room. Projected and intervening in the background space of the piece, in true Morell fashion, is a shrubby dry western landscape made from his unique technique of merging inside and outside through photographic process. Unlike his Brooklyn Bridge piece where the style of the bed questions its surroundings, this reading room of Asian and Eastern European texts could be plugged into any number of settings. Signified beautifully by an outlet to the right of the bookcase with a single cord connected to it, leading to somewhere abstract off the print, but symbolizing the relevance of this scene in any space—even on the white walls of Haines Gallery. So inviting and telling, this image made me want to curl up on the rug with book, and, like a time machine, shift the landscape to new and exciting vistas.
Equally as moving in the exhibition is Jo Babcock’s Gasoline Can and Abandoned Gas Station, 1997. A combination of photography and sculpture, Babcock creates pinhole cameras out of objects thematically relevant to the photographic landscape. At first glance, seeing an old rusty vintage gas can on a pedestal under the framed photograph of a gas station seems too literal. However, after standing in front of it for many minutes, I was struck with the reality of remembering what it was like before gas pumps accepted credit cards, of the community fueling stations created—long before my road trips of recent where I do my best to avoid going inside truck stops and work hard to eliminate my dependency on fuel. Literal, yes, there was something duplicitously heartening and vacant about the landscape Babcock created.
In her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, Hannah Arendt presents Benjamin as the revolutionary literary critic. Benjamin, like Susan Sontag, immediately came to mind as canonical references as I sat down to write a review about contemporary photographic processes. Arendt prophesizes the role of visionary critic, in the same way that I see the role of the photographers in Science of Sight. Being such, I took the liberty of updating her passage to read my reflections:
“The [photographer] as an alchemist practicing the obscure art of transmitting the futile elements of the real into the shining, enduring gold of truth, or rather watching and interpreting the historical process that brings about such magical transfiguration – whatever we may think of this figure, it hardly corresponds to anything we usually have in mind when we classify [an artist] as a [photographer].”
—Kara Q. Smith
Top Image: John Chiara, 15th at Noriega, 2011, Dye Destruction Process, Unique Photograph, 33 x 28 inches, Frame: 40 x 35 inches. Courtesy of Artist and Haines Gallery