Thursday, March 10, 2016

Still movement (#ArtReview)

UNFIXED: The fugitive image at the Transformer Station
By Christopher Alexander Gellert for love, -j.

          “The contingency of photography confirms that everything 
          is perishable; the arbitrariness of photographic evidence 
          indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable."
          -Susan Sontag

          Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
          Nothing beside remains...
          -Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandius”

I’m almost hesitant to label UNFIXED: The fugitive image as a photography exhibition. The show, currently on exhibition until April 3 at the Transformer Station (the Cleveland Museum of Art’s West Side annex), resists traditional assumptions about photos as pictures. Instead, it asks us to approach photography, and video, as a process that does not immortalize, but like all things inevitably dies. That death is written into the works encourages us to treat them as living objects, to find beauty in their movement, meaning in their brief passage, as in our own.

Fred Bidwell, one of the gallery’s co-founders, with his wife Laura, opened a recent gallery talk by suggesting that photography has outgrown the need to try to prove itself as an art form. Photography can finally let loose.

But if photographers no longer concern themselves with respect and acceptance from the establishment they now take for granted, they are threatened by their own success, the sheer volume of photographic images— a world in which everyone wishes to be a photographer, and our immediate thought on seeing a thing is to ask ourselves if it would make a good photo. 

Susan Sontag eloquently addressed these difficulties in her prescient work On Photography. UNFIXED: The fugitive image shrugs its shoulders at the hoary debates between photography and art and the ubiquity of image in our lives. It disregards the question by effacing it.

The first piece in the exhibition, Phil Chang’s series of unfixed silver gelatin photograms, reveals the memory and the trace of the rectangular forms imprinted on the negative that began to disappear within hours on opening night when the image took flight after the plastic seal had been broken and the photographs were exposed.

“He’ll supply us with two extra copies,” Mr. Bidwell ribbed during his gallery talk. “We can experience this change two more times.”

We all appreciatively chuckled, but the conceit itself serves as a kind of haunting joke about the transience of all things and the folly at our longing for permanence. We collect the world through photos. Sontag defined the photographer as a Baudelaire’s flâneur, the wanderlust plagued promeneur in search of the picturesque.

“Everything that the big city threw away, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot he categorizes and collects,” Sontag writes in On Photography, quoting from “The Painter of Modern Life” to articulate the character of the flâneur/photographer. She opposes this vision of the photographer to the painter, and the conflation of the two by the mob. “Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method for disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people,” she argues. And yet, some of the images in the exhibition resemble paintings more than they do photographs.

A pair of twin triptychs by John Opera in the larger gallery space illustrates this slippage. The works are not photographs exactly but anthotypes (images developed using the photosensitive materials of plants). Each work pairs a portrait in silhouette, a light shadow against a darkened background in the same color, with two progressively larger images of paired twin radials sprouting from a central axis, recalling mirrored fans. Mr. Bidwell introduced the artist by saying, “John is a photographer who thinks like a painter, and I think maybe he’ll actually stop using photography altogether and become a painter.”

Opera’s work brings to mind color field painters like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who played with warm tones in the space of the canvas. It is neither a photograph, as we conceive one, nor a work of art to be tended and preserved. The plant dyes Mr. Opera used (beet and blueberry) are perishable. His work will escape conservators and posterity.

Art is no longer an eternal monument, but something that breathes.

In the next room Tom Persinger plays in “The Past,” “The Present,” and “The Future.” “The past” is a blue field cyanotype fixed and immutable, “The Present” develops throughout the life of the show as the agent continues to be exposed to light and the image evolves. “The Future” is blank, virgin paper with a pencil outline. Persinger will round out the show's closing on April 03 with a gallery talk and performance.

UNFIXED: The fugitive image is on display now through April 3. I strongly suggest you witness the tremendous power of the works in the exhibition for yourself.

(If you go, consult the online catalog at as you wander to offer some needed perspective.)

Images courtesy of the Transformer Station.