Fragments of an Unknowable Whole at Urban Arts Space
Fragments of an Unknowable Whole curated by Timothy Smith at Urban Arts Space, the Ohio State University’s off-campus space for contemporary art in downtown Columbus, brought together twenty-one artists with varying approaches to lens-based art. It’s all here, from screenshots to early photographic technique, and photography – via – environmental digestion. Despite this expansiveness, this exhibition cannily avoids any grand proclamations on the state of photography; leave your medium-specific angst at the door. Rather, Fragments of an Unknowable Whole wanders, revealing itself in loopbacks and reversals, the ordering and cadence taking advantage of the somewhat warren-like nature of the space itself. Multiple works by many of the artists in the exhibition both acknowledges the depth of each artists practice, and confounds their classification, as one type of practice nourishes another, lending a conversational tone.
Shannon Benine’s photograms, Central Light (No. 1) and Central Light (No. 2) (both 2009) look like the retina burn-ins that result from staring directly at the sun. They are beautiful, perfect – technical virtuosity in the service of formal experimentation. The same analog process is re-presented in multiple in the installation Means Without End (2008-2001). Color photograms of unfolded peace cranes are tiled to form a vaguely silo-shaped space that engulfs the supporting structure above; the viewer enters through a small opening. Means Without End is a cumulative visualization of American casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, a personal meditation on slaughter by the artist, and a classic strategy for delivering hard truths in an aesthetically attractive package. It’s an unfashionable subject; we all have war fatigue – and there is a tension here between the self-soothing, meditative process of making the cranes and the fact of a mounting death toll, which speaks to the personal impulse of the artist to do something – however futile the gesture – in response. The most overtly political work in the exhibition, Means Without End sits somewhat uneasily in a show that is on the whole, carefully non-political, outside of photography’s formally conservative circles.
Also moving off the walls and into the gallery space is Alex Chitty’s The Way They Wanted To Sleep (2013). At first, it seems to propose a shift from mediated experience of the world (think iPhone camera – as – outsourced memory) back to an old-fashioned unmediated encounter with objects in space, consisting of three plywood structures wrapped in packing tape. Highly ambiguous, they suggest museum displays wrapped for storage. The encounter is complicated by the inclusion of printer-paper images taped willy-nilly to the sides that layer incongruous odds and ends – clover flowers, nesting dishes, a garden, (memories, or clues?). These simultaneously fold and expand space, functioning as little portals into another dimension. The packing tape lends a few nominal and contradictory photographic characteristics to these objects; a confluence of surfaces; both glossy and impenetrable, transparent and empty. Similarly airtight, Ryland Wharton’s Partial Palace Reconstruction (Engineering Without Engineers) (2013-2014), codes meaning. An assortment of photocopied images are arranged on a supporting structure made from old shelving units that unfolds, sprawling, across the gallery floor; neural pathways signposted by images that refer back to some unknown source. The deliberate clunkiness of Partial Palace Reconstruction feels subversive, suggesting an opaque network of meaning that obstinately resists interpretation and turns inwards – a response perhaps to our present reality of big data, surveillance, and the reductive entertainment-news industrial complex.
Both Sage Lewis and Jessica Labatte play with the space of the flat photographic image. Jessica Labatte’s Surface Effects series (all 2010), archival inkjet prints of mylar bags that appear to be on the point of floating off the page, are gestural and painterly, riffing on the super clean and sharp ubiquitous still life genre, while Sage Lewis’s Curtain, Grey (2013), appears to protrude out from the wall. Everything Is Collective play with the limits of human perception in their Brief History series (2014), crossing back and forth between photographed and computer-modelled imagery with their immaculate monochromatic still life images that experiment with the weight and placing of objects in space.
Aspen Mays’ Tools (with a shelf for their shadows) (2014), backs up and shifts focus onto the makeshift dodge tools that are used in the darkroom to manipulate the exposure of the image – the objects that are not the art itself but that come into being and accrete alongside alongside the intended art. Tools (with a shelf for their shadows) is meta-art, serving as a playful reminder that in the professionalized, high pressure world of contemporary art, populated by stressed-out MFA students making careful boring work when the pressure is on, that sometimes it is the auxiliary parts of artistic practice, done on a routine, relaxed basis and given time to mature, that reward.
Like Mays’ dodge tools, Jesse Mclean’s Climbing (2009), steps outside the space of the finished product, bringing the activity around the production of the image to the fore. The viewer enters the Photoshop workspace as the ubiquitous move tool – the hand – appears to climb over a mountainous landscape carefully assembled from screenshots. The presence of the person behind the hand is discernable, expressed in the slight hesitations and probings as the hand seeks purchase on the rocky slopes. Rather than distance, this representation of the technical or screen-space generates warmth, a tentative human extension into virtual space that juts out ever farther, as well as commenting on our uber-mediated experience of landscape.
One of the key threads of Fragments is the way that vision changes depending on your vantage point, and there are dramatic shifts in both perspective and scale throughout; from digital explorations via endless scroll to earth–as-camera, as in Jeremy Bolen’s Site A/Plot M series (2012). In a process that involves burying unexposed film in potentially radioactive soil, Bolen peels off layers of mediation and plays with the criteria of the photographic document; indexicality and chemical processes working across a surface are coupled with dirt from the site smeared across the surface of the finished print. The end results bring multiple visual readings, from engine oil rainbowing across the surface of asphalt to deep space imagery. Bolen’s Untitled (Cern, 7.20.12) series, (2012), basks in the reflected light of high science. Incidental photographs made from film accidentally exposed near the Large Hadron Collider are stuck onto a canvas covered in grass and debris from the site. All of these works are visibly disintegrating; bits of grass and dirt accumulate on the gallery floor below or at the bottom of the frame indicating that the process is not yet finished; the document unfixed. Similarly working alongside scientific processes, Jordan Tate’s large-scale, inkjet on fabric prints New Work #195 and New Work #194 (both 2014) manipulate scale to an exponential level, harnessing microscopic vision to capture mark making on a molecular level, expanding the field of vision.
The layout of the galleries at Urban Arts Space is roughly circular, and sole traditional documentary offering, Gina Osterloh’s film New Vision (2012) is encountered either at the beginning or the end, bracketing the exhibition and providing a straightforward counterweight to all of these dense, tightly wrapped works. The film presents vision as a transferable, mutable sense. Shot inside a massage therapy school for the blind in the Phillipines, it is quiet, and tenderly observed. In one scene, two students play a game of chess, and as the hands of the chess players caress their way through a match, one observes another way of seeing at work via the fingertips- the part of the body most sensitive to touch. One of the chess players describes dreams in which childhood memories of watching a volcano erupt close to his village play out. In this dream space, memory and vision are one. New Vision sits in dialogue with another piece by Osterloh, Dots Front Misfire-Shooting Blanks (2008), hung on the opposite side of the gallery, which depicts a prone figure covered in multicolored paper dots, in a space also papered with a riotous pattern of the same colors, both blind and camouflaged, unknown and unknowable. Vision is characterized by singularity and interiority; we must attend to the things that we cannot see, the cloud of meanings and cross-currents that hover just outside the field of vision in order to fully grasp reality. Inviting consideration of all of the different faculties, spaces, and relationships involved in seeing and the construction of meaning, the artists in Fragments of an Unknowable Whole revel in the endless possibilities of this exploded, anything-goes moment in post-photographic practice.