By the time of photography’s invention, linear perspective as a device for ordering pictorial space was centuries old — tried and (sufficiently) true. Photography adopted perspective, along with many of painting’s other conventions, and so became another way to make pictures. Gwenn Thomas examines the interplay of photographic and painting space, with a particular focus on light. In recent years, luminosity itself has emerged as her ultimate subject.
Two roughly concurrent New York exhibitions sample Thomas’s work to date. The checklist for Gwenn Thomas: Awnings, Windows, Rooms at Regina Rex (through December 4) stretches from 1980 to 2014 and includes, among its 15 items, five photo-emulsion-on-linen works from the mid-1990s. At 57 W 57 Arts, Gwenn Thomas: Standard Candles (through December 17) comprises eleven new and recent works in which the materiality of light in relation to the representation of architectural space is paramount.
Most of the work, which is neither particularly large nor small, is scaled to fit comfortably in these spaces, a compact downtown storefront and a midtown office building. At Regina Rex, an important early work titled “Flats” (1985) is both visually stark and elliptical in meaning — qualities Thomas’s work of the period has in common with many of the “Pictures Generation” of artists working in the wake of Douglas Crimp’s landmark 1977 exhibition.
“Flats” consists of a photograph of a pair of casement windows of the kind that are hinged at the bottom and open inward (“hoppers”); these are slightly ajar. The mullions and heavy painted-wood frame are flaking and crumbling. The panes are grimy with age or possibly papered over; we can’t see much inside. The windows are photographed at an angle from the left side, and the resulting perspectival geometry of the image is reiterated in the shape of the work itself: an eccentric quadrilateral in which the bottom edge is horizontal, and the left side is significantly higher than the right.
The work is conspicuously framed with wide, beveled-wood molding painted a tasteful, décor-friendly purplish-red that looks great (and somehow slightly rueful) against the photo’s sooty tones. It emphasizes the shape, and by extension the manifest flatness, of the work on the wall — which the photographic representation of space contradicts. The concrete and the illusory battle to a draw.
The significance of the window as subject matter is unclear in “Flats,” but Thomas puts a finer point on it in subsequent works. “Untitled” (1987-88) is built around a black-and-white shot of the interior of what looks like a pre-war public school or municipal office building. Heavy woodwork and light-washed windows everywhere imply a maze of interpenetrating planes, or a house of cards. This complex array is glimpsed through a colonnade (or yet another row of windows?) that recedes in perspectival space to the left.
The print itself is cropped, roughly following the slant of that colonnade so as to lose its upper left corner — imagine the profile of the Citicorp building, or Thornton Willis’s “Wedge” paintings of the late 1970s. A wide, whitish frame with a rough, sandy texture echoes that shape, and again we toggle between emphatic flatness and the illusion of depth.
The work suddenly becomes momentous when we learn that Thomas shot the photo at the Ellis Island processing center, shortly before the restoration of that symbol of immigration, in the late 1980s. So… you could think of a window as a breach in the membrane between “here” and “there,” between us and them. And bureaucracy controls the shutters.
With the addition of the illusory thickness of a windowsill protruding into the photographs, the frames surrounding “Letters” (1989) and “Letters II” (1987-88) assume the mass of a wall. In the Kafkaesque view beyond — the same photo in both works, reversed — a faceless figure scurries behind a pillar, disappearing down a corridor. In these works, the perspective of the corridor and that of the frame lead in opposite directions, yet the two elements merge to inhabit the same pictorial space.
For several years in the 1990s, Thomas made geometrically based collages using paper, plastic, and other ordinary materials, which she photographed in black-and-white, printing the enlarged photos on lengths of sensitized linen that she then stretched, as you would a painting. These “photo emulsion on linen” works stand a bit apart from the rest of Thomas’s output, and directly question the distinction between abstraction and representation.
The source material — the collage — is abstract, yet it seems that the photograph derived from it is not, since it is (we may assume) a recognizable image of the source. Thomas is at pains to make sure we realize the collage is a photo: the different thicknesses of the constituent paper stocks and other materials are evident from subtle but telling shadows, and the image includes bits of tape and other glimpses of studio kit at the margins.
Through this reiterative method, “Greys Abstract” (1993) and the closely related “IZ Abstract” (1994) represent collages made of squares of various values of gray in strict but imperfect grids. The grays are clear but slightly blurry, the range of values devoid of extremes. “Awning” (1993), which at 43 ½ inches high, is among the largest works in either show, sports vertical stripes of varying width that don’t quite reach the bottom edge; instead, they cast a drop shadow and give themselves away as photo-reproduced strips of paper.
Thomas has remarked that she is “to some degree” appropriating herself by reproducing her source collages on stretched linen. She also adapts the look of (and prompts nostalgia for) black-and-white textbook reproductions of early Modernist photo-based experiments by the likes of Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Using a similar procedure, Thomas has also referred to Lee Krasner’s collage paintings by digitally printing colored inks on canvas (alas, not represented in the exhibition). And of course the method presages any number of present-day practitioners of technology-assisted painting; in the mid-90s Thomas was, simply, ahead of her time.
Both shows include several works from the recent series “Moments of Place” (2013-14), which, unlike the unique photo-objects I’ve discussed, are produced in small editions. Like “Flats,” they are photos of windows having two panes, side by side. Unlike “Flats,” they are seen head-on, which triggers in the viewer’s mind an association with the diptych — as if the windows are paintings, rather than utilitarian architectural features.
As such, they align with the Minimalist strategy, often stated by Donald Judd himself, of an image that is “coextensive with the support.” The photo of the window and its frame sits snugly within the work’s actual, aluminum frame — the window is the picture, and the picture is the window.
“Moments of Place IV” is suffused with a yellow glow. Sleek and reductive, these are windows that could be spec’d for a stylish bunker. (The artist has studied the Wittgenstein House in Vienna). The photo’s illusion of depth is clearly limited to the thickness of the sill, but the imagination wanders into that golden fog in search of endless space. At 57 W 57 Arts, the work merges with the architecture of the room in a nearly trompe-l’oeil fashion; ambient illumination from a nearby (actual) window washes over the wall from the right, consistent with the photographic light source. Their integration is seamless.
In its angled view and trapezoidal shape, “Moments of Place IV” harks back to “Flats.” The image is a moderne pair of panes tinted sea green in a heavy metal housing; its location on a narrow bit of wall flanked by large windows with sweeping views of Midtown ratchets up the cognitive dissonance. The placement makes awkward demands on our willingness to suspend disbelief of the spatial illusion: I visited the gallery at midday; no doubt this viewing experience is wholly different after dark, under artificial lights.
A new body of work, “Standard Candles,” involves frosted Plexiglas and wall paint. Among the smallest works in either show, a roughly 8-by-14-inch “Standard Candles” (no numeration appears on the checklist) comprises a double-wide box-jointed frame of unfinished wood enclosing a sheet of frosted Plexiglas; the wall behind the Plexi is painted a color that we don’t see directly but that, filtered through the Plexi, comes across as a gentle but insistent rosy pink. In astronomy, “standard candles” are groups of celestial objects (galaxies, supernovae, stars) whose luminosity is used in calculating astronomical distances. Thomas’s “Standard Candles” are indeed luminous, particularly a lavender iteration that hangs on the wall near the yellow “Moments of Place IV.”
As in the “Moments of Place” works, the color in “Standard Candles” — neither transparent nor opaque, but materialized, like a vapor — seems to occupy an infinitely elastic space behind the plane of the glass, obscuring a vista that we feel must be there. Though materially divergent, the two series are strikingly similar in effect.
I don’t know whether Thomas has made any trapezoidal “Standard Candles,” but a site-specific installation by that name at 57 W 57 Arts incorporates framed-out Plexiglas and wall painting on a large scale. The frame — wood-stained to closely match the honey-toned floor — is perhaps five feet square and divided into quadrants by cross braces, as a stretcher might be. The acrylic sheet attached to it is so close to the wall that it scarcely distorts the color behind it, a chalky ochre. We know this because, in this iteration of “Standard Candles,” the color extends right and left to the corners of the wall, and downward to the floor.
The gallery tells us that this work is related to the Judd installations at Marfa, Texas. For me, that information prompted a landscape reading, as if the square were a cube, surrounded by desert vastness. The horizon line, then, coincides with the top edge of that simplest of Platonic solids — and we are once again in the realm of conceptualized space, of sight lines and vanishing points and linear perspective.
The excitement of Thomas’s work is this intermingling of the abstract and the material, the universal with the here-and-now. I keep thinking about how, in “Standard Candles,” the perceptual distortion of color — the illusion of difference — decreases as the elements are brought into closer proximity. Not overtly political, Thomas’s steadily radiant works assume new meanings in these dark times.
Gwenn Thomas: Awnings, Windows, Rooms continues at Regina Rex (221 Madison Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 4.
Gwenn Thomas: Standard Candles continues at 57 W 57 Arts (57 West 57th Street, Suite 1206, Midtown, Manhattan) through December 17.