Monday, February 8, 2016

Birgit Blyth at Carrie Haddad

Blyth, Marathon Series 1, 2015
We've been waiting a good number of years to find a moment to write about Birgit Blyth and the fault is all ours.  Today we're correcting it.  Her pictures in the current group show at Carrie Haddad Gallery in the upstate hamlet of Hudson, New York, on display until February 14, are powerful, crisp, elegant pictorial statements that will make us want to reconsider all her previous work.  We should have seen this coming.

Blyth, Marathon Series 2, 2015
Blyth, Marathon Series 3, 2015

Some background: Birgit has been working quietly in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since the 1970s.  She began in printmaking, then conventional photography, gradually migrating to alternative photography, pinholes, cyanotypes, van dyck browns, doubtless to other niche methods as well.  Her interests may seem fractured but each was given time to develop and bear fruit before she moved on; in hindsight the trajectory made sense.  She was learning and did what many of us do: she visited museums, she absorbed Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Brice Marden, Terry Winters - it's good to be infatuated with the best - and each left a mark on her.  She did residencies in Johannesburg, South Africa, 9 years running, and met William Kentridge.  Then at some point a friend showed her the article by Dominic Man-Kit Lam and Bryant Rossiter in Scientific American (November 1991) entitled 'Chromoskedasic Painting' and her artistic life changed forever.

So what exactly is this chromoskedasic painting that Birgit is doing?  Rossiter had derived the term from classical Greek to mean 'color scattering', indicating the mechanism by which the black light of silver grains in photographic emulsion can, if these grains are handled properly, yield a spectrum of yellows, reds, purples, greens and blues that we see in works of the chemigram type.  We've discussed this mechanism, the Mie effect, in the blog here and here and elsewhere.  And make no mistake about it, chromoskedasic painting is a kind of chemigram; Christina Z. Anderson calls it the chromoskedasic extension of the chemigram.  As things have turned out, there is one part of the 'chromo' agenda (to shorten Rossiter's mouthful of a word) that distinguishes it from simple chemigrams, and that is the crucial application of stabilizer and activator to the process, two additional chemicals that act somewhat like a hyper aggressive fixer and developer and help boost both coloration and silvering-out.  In short, if you don't have stabilizer and activator you aren't doing chromo.  For the geeks - I am one but I'll spare you - details on how they are thought to function can be found in the last two chapters of the late William Jolly's book, which is linked in the right-hand sidebar. 

Blyth's pictures then are chromoskedasic paintings, the term she is most comfortable with.  You paint on photo paper with chemicals - a certain palette of chemicals - and you watch and guide what happens.  In the early days she poured the chemicals directly onto the paper, let them flow and drip as in her splendid Veil series; later she resorted to a brush, and finally, recalling her printmaking experience, she went with resists, mostly Elmers glue, rubber cement, and tape, or what we would today call 'soft resists.'  Still, she is far from the world of incisions and mackie lines, the Cordier universe, although she is fine with that and the results prove, for the things that matter most to her, how right she is.

Blyth, Veil No. 29, 2009

Blyth, Veil No. 30, 2009

Blyth, Chromo Grid No. 13A, 2014
Let us now get back to the Marathon series that we led off with.  This series came into being as she was listening on the radio to the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial in Boston.  She had, before her on the workbench, a stack of old prints she'd been thinking about, one quite large, with the gridlike scaffolding she often uses as structure, the dominant lines mostly vertical.  Suddenly, in rage and fury, she tore it up - into smaller pieces, each holding still a memory of the larger one.  She looked at what she'd done and had an idea: I'll paint the torn edges red.  Just a bit, just where the tear was, and I'll make it an orange-red that screams - and that is what she did.  It's at Carrie Haddad.

Blyth, Marathon 4, 2015
Birgit uses all sorts of paper, expired or not, RC or FB, single or double weight, every kind of finish, glossy, pearl, you name it.  The Marathon series was Ilford RC glossy and the individual pieces are 8 x 10" more or less, having been torn down from 20 x 24".  She buys her chromo chemicals from Freestyle.  None of her work is editioned, each piece is unique.  She displays them uncovered - no glass, no plexi.   Sometimes she mounts them on aluminum.  

You have one more week to see this terrific work in person.  The train ride from Penn Station in NYC is two hours.