Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Unbalancing the grid at Amherst

Turnbull, from the Gates series, 2016
Rich Turnbull, in his annual excursion into chemigrams, has given us new images to digest, explicate, and fawn over, as though we were just so many eager students in one of his lecture courses at the Met or F.I.T. and this were a class assignment.  He does this every year.  He's a tough teacher.  The one shown here, part of his Gates series, is on display in a group show at Gallery A3 in Amherst, Massachusetts until July 31.  Let's see what he's up to with it and see whether, after reaching an understanding, we might move to the head of the class.

To tackle obvious matters first, his paper is Bergger and the resist is Liquetex Soluvar.  Many of you will say, aha! Bergger means a high silver content and therefore really dense blacks.  Well, not so fast my friends.  Here at the blog we view that attitude as urban legend - not the silver content per se but the blackness of the blacks, which is not at all correlated with silver content according to Richard Henry in his Controls in Black and White Photography, 2nd edition, 1987, who has done the experiments.  Once you get to Dmax, the maximum black, additional silver does nothing, and you can get to Dmax quite easily with a broad range of papers.  We feel Rich used it because he simply had it available and wanted to finish off the box.

Soluvar varnish is another matter altogether.  In the old days, our experience with Soluvar as a chemigram resist was that it was indistinguishable from Golden MSA varnish and was very good indeed.  Then, unannounced, the Liquetex folks must have added a polymer for brittleness to the formulation, who knows what they were thinking, for Soluvar suddenly assumed a very different character and became a niche product with quirks only a specialist could love.  Cracks, fissures, crazed rifts went everywhere, branching from one another down to the smallest of scales.  For the basic chemigram it was not something you'd want to use.  But Rich is not just anyone.

Let's go to the man's own words to see where he went with it.  'I made the outer and center vertical incisions with an X-acto knife to define the working space,' he says, 'then drew the grids freehand with a pin tool, commonly used in bookbinding [Rich also makes artist's books].  I didn't tape the paper down when coating it with Soluvar, and since paper curls toward the emulsion, the rather soupy varnish pooled a bit in the center so that my incisions didn't quite penetrate through the thicker areas of varnish, resulting in the large open area at bottom center.'

But this must have been a sought-after effect, indeed the entire pivot of the image.  He goes on, while addressing one of the classic difficulties of the chemigram, the tyranny of the grid:  'I've done my share of carefully ruled grids on chemigrams of course, but of late I've worked with hand-drawn grids to unbalance the balanced nature of the grid, which is all about superimposed order anyway.'

The struggle with materials is apparent in all his work, where each aesthetic decision comes about from a meditation on the limits of his tools.  This in turn gives it an integrity, a density, that is exemplary and an unforeseen payoff.

For Turnbull, who in the summer months lives on the edge of a forest in the far western part of Massachusetts and survives, according to some, on a diet of bear-meat and gin, the received impression from the Gates series can be - take your pick - melted nylon, ripped flesh, an old fence where something large and terrifying has bitten its way through and is now roaming ever nearer, and so on.  This is not easy work, but a punishing reward for the mind.  Best perhaps to stay indoors and enjoy it from there.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Cameraless at Atelier pH7, Brussels

Pierre Cordier & Gundi Falk, Chimigramme 11-6-13 I "Resurgence", 2013
In the quiet, leafy neighborhood of Uccle in Brussels, the quiet gentleman (and maestro) of alternative photography, Roger Kockaerts, has put up a show at Atelier pH7 of alternative work that runs until well into the summer.  If it were only for the van dyck browns, the palladiums, the carbon prints, the bromoils and orotypes and of course the gums, it would be worth seeing, but there is a double reason: a significant part of the show is devoted to cameraless work, in this case the chemigram, and some fascinating and instructive work it is.

The above piece, by the Brussels-based team of Pierre Cordier and Gundi Falk, demonstrates the devotion to exacting conceptions for which they are famous.  Here they compound that practice by using one of their frequent ploys, the hidden puzzle, an audience favorite since time immemorial.  If you stand back and squint real hard you can just make out the letters of the title, R-e-s-u-r-g-e-n-c-e, written left to right and then, as in a boustrophedon, a device popular in ancient Greece, from right to left in the line below and zigzagging back and forth down the picture.  As I say, you have to squint.  Who said boustrophedons were easy!  Yet is the supposed boustrephodon here actually a red herring, a trail leading to a misreading?  It's for you to decide.  Here's a blow-up of the lower left corner, which is elegant fun but unfortunately may not help at all:

detail, Resurgence

In a work like this, planning in advance is essential - everything must be scrupulously mapped out, the incisions, the larger boundaries, the form to be taken by the hidden letters of text, the areas to be masked from chemical assault.  'More Mondrian, less Pollock,' as Pierre has said - a lot more.  The good part is that once set in motion the process more or less proceeds to term on its own, and all the artist has to do is shift the paper from one tray to another.  Imperfections, blips, and other small visitations from the gods of photochemistry, when they happen, are accepted into the picture, indeed they are blessed as emblematic.  But I exaggerate somewhat.

To monitor progress (the new reader should review earlier how-to posts on chemigrams, such as this), the artist may use the thickness of dark and light lines as a measure or trace of ongoing activity, a chronometric record not unlike the growth rings of a tree - an idea which, the more we think of it, may connect chemigrams to the larger saga of natural history and to the seasons of the earth.  If you think this connection far-fetched, we've discussed themes allied to it before in other contexts, for instance in the rate of movement of mackie lines around the equator.  Critics and pundits in the future, if there is a future and there are critics, will want to expound on this.

Another work on view by the same team is 'Musigram', a remarkable piece depicting a fantasy musical score that features a staccato of bips, or congealed clumps of musical notes, against an opulent black.  Don't even think of playing it, it's only for viewing.  One attendee at the opening tried to hum it but failed, complaining he needed a bass line to keep time - or perhaps just a refreshed glass.

Pierre Cordier & Gundi Falk, Chimigramme 11-6-13 I "Musigram", 2013
Here's a closer glimpse into this distinctive work.  The unfathomable, indescribable wonder of the chemigram is on full display.  You can scrapbook this one for study later.

detail, Musigram

Douglas Collins has several chemigrams in the show as well, quite different in design and a far cry from the impeccable work of Cordier & Falk.  All were done earlier this year, mainly in the western Mexican state of Guerrero working under, let's say, simple conditions.  Using Foma FB paper outdoors under a tree, he produced this

Collins, Guerrero series #4, 2016

and this

Collins, Guerrero series #5, 2016
and this

Collins, Guerrero series #11, 2016

The quality of the light and of the water in rural Mexico can be expected to have had an effect, from subtle to determinative: the water was from an ancient well, and bore minerals from deep in the mountainside.  Here's some detail:

detail, Guerrero series #4

and again

detail, Guerrero series #11,
A poet once said that knowledge is like water, 'dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.'  These pictures, relaxed and open, suffused with sun, unplanned and unforeseen, seem to partake in the joy of discovering profound secrets when one is least expecting them - or when, rather, one suspects they have been present all along.  

Or, according to Collins, they could express something else entirely, and that's okay with him too.

* * * *

Pierre Cordier and Gundi Falk will be seen at Galerie Volker Diehl (Berlin) in August and at Paris Photo/Scheublein + Bak (Paris/Zurich) in November.  Gundi Falk has a solo show underway at Barbado Gallery (Lisbon).  Collins has work currently on view at IPCNY (New York) and at the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, California).