Stephen Wirtz Gallery is pleased to present trans/literate, a new exhibition of photographs by Catherine Wagner. In this exhibition, volumes of braille texts are presented as diptychs; an image of the closed book on the left with its accompanying open pages and embossed braille on the right.
trans/literate continues Wagner’s investigation of cultural archives that use unique systems to transfer knowledge. Presented as typologies, these investigations present materials that are often associated with highly specific audiences, creating rich commentary on significant issues of medical, technological, and contemporary cultural experiences.
In the twelve works presented, all of which represent seminal literary works of fiction and philosophy, Wagner investigates the experiential difference between reading and listening, with particular focus on the decline of braille text publishing as audio recording gains prevalence. This decline places braille firmly in a larger conversational matrix, one in which sighted books and book publishing are declining as more convenient, technology-based, and portable modes of reading continue their ascent. This context transcends the world of the blind. In a literal sense, the growing prevalence of auditory materials is a harbinger of reading itself entering a retreat into history and memory.
Braille has remained a constant, unchanged language since its invention in 1834. Books in general have long been fetishized as tactile, almost sensual objects. With braille, the physical connection of holding and reading a book is even further enhanced, with each word possessing this tactile immediacy. Wagner’s photographs convey a strong understanding of physical loss, documenting the books as flat surfaces that create a sculptural illusion of punched relief, but with a distance that reinforces the irreplaceable loss of a physical dimension.
Though absolutely subjective, Wagner set out to find books that had distinguishable resonance. Presenting them as diptychs allowed her to break each book into macro- and micro-abstractions. Viewed at a distance, the diptychs are color fields, the book covers a rich palette of crimsons, magentas, aubergines, and bright, verdant greens. Viewed alongside white fields of open books printed in braille, her presentation echoes the unadorned visual capacity of the blind. Upon closer inspection, the embossed dots become a seductive trompe l’oeil, coercing the viewer into a desire to touch the page. This dimensional deception is reconciled as the viewer reaches the bottom right of the image, where two titles converge, one in braille overlaying one in print.
For over thirty years Wagner has been a keen observer of the built environment, examining institutions of learning and knowledge, such as art museums and science labs, as well as the ways we construct our cultural identity. Wagner has received many major awards, including the inaugural Visual Arts Fellowship from the San Jose Museum of Art, a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Fellowships, an award from Artadia: The Fund for Art and Dialogue, and the Ferguson Award. Ms. Wagner was also named one of Time Magazine’s Fine Arts Innovators of the Year for 2001.
In addition to her studio work, Wagner has also created large-scale site-specific public art pieces for the City of San Francisco, the UCSF Medical School, the City of Los Angeles. Wagner recently won the Central Subway Public Art Competition from the San Francisco Art Commission for the Moscone Muni station. Her public artworks combine the theoretical rigor of her photographic works with an awareness of the specifics and history of each site.
Her work is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Museum of Folkswang, Essen, Germany, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Her monographs include Cross Sections (Twin Palms Press 2002), Art & Science: Investigating Matter (Washington University, 1996), Home and Other Stories (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993), and American Classroom (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1988). Her work was included in the 2012 SFMOMA exhibition Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media, curated by Rudolf Frieling.