In an exhibition titled Every Photo Graph Is In Visible a new Chelsea gallery called Churner and Churner is showing progressive work that reflects the revolutionary attempts attributed to modernists like Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy.
Last week, one artist currently on view, Letha Wilson, met with gallerist Rachel Churner and I to discuss her work and how it paves a new analog path for photography by using materials outside of the medium’s traditional form.
* * *
Tom Winchester: Do you consider yourself a photographer?
Letha Wilson: I use photography. In a way, I consider myself an amateur photographer. When I went to undergrad at Syracuse, which is where I learned to print color and black-and-white, I was actually a painting major, and in grad school at Hunter I was in combined media. I’ve always used photography in my work in one way or another. Even as a painting major I was doing collages and Xerox transfers, and using imagery from my home in Colorado.
TW: Is your work influenced by Colorado?
LW: Definitely. I grew up there, we had a cabin, and we’d go on week or two-week long backpack trips every summer. I think that extended time with the landscape, kind of one-on-one, where you’re hiking for days — you get so far into the wilderness that you’re really aware that maybe only a few other people have walked there because it’s so remote. You get to this level of nature that you can’t get by just passing through. You really have to commit.
TW: Your work reminds me of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, and his ideas on nature and the cultural landscape. Is seeing nature with your eyes different from seeing it in a photograph?
LW: I think the interesting thing about photography is you’re trying to capture that moment because you want to hold onto it, this vision, this view you see that’s encompassing you, so you’re using photography as an attempt to capture, but then there’s something interesting when you look at that photograph in a different place and time; it conveys another place, a third meaning. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work, using physical or structural components to bring that third element in so it’s not really here nor there, and make it more present at the moment of viewing. I think it fills a gap. I’m really drawn to sculpture, and as a viewer I think it has a lot of possibilities and potential, so I’m really trying to mix the physical presence of an artwork with an image.
TW: James Welling also tries to keep his work present, unfolding over time like a Wallace Stevens poem, and like his, your work abstracts the material of photography in order to emphasize the physicality of the medium. Do any of the works in this show take off from your Extrusions series?
LW: The Extrusions were my first attempts to bring these two ideas, sculpture and photography, together in a very literal way. They were on a huge scale, they were photographs of events, of people, of architecture — and whatever that thing was I took out, obscured and extruded into sculptures. So I was abstracting something you don’t see, but that thing gives a reason for a new form to come out: the inner space.
After that series I went back to printing in the darkroom, which I hadn’t done since college, and that change allowed the material of the photograph to open up, because I wasn’t worried about ruining expensive digital prints. I would cut, tear, fold; and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past five years. The darkroom is part of my process. When I’m in there I feel I can try anything.
TW: By today’s standards, even just the act of printing the photograph yourself is an implicit polemic on digitization.
LW: Going backwards is interesting to me. The physical nature of what I’m doing is representative of a backlash or a response to digitization.
TW: “Two by Four” (2011) seems like it’s more about materials than an image, and you’re using the depictive element of photography’s form to, in essence, “hammer it home.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but you always use images of landscapes.
LW: To me, it’s an area of photography that’s been called cliché and written off, avoided by photographers and people in the art world to the point where it’s ripe for new ideas. It’s seemingly off limits, but how can we make that in to a new conversation? There’s still something in the landscape that needs to be looked at today, and I think the depiction of the landscape allows for a wide audience to enter the work as well as that conversation.
Rachel Churner: I was wondering if your work, Letha, had been influenced by land art, because I feel your work is as much about physically manipulating the earth as it is about manipulating the image.
LW: The first land art piece I saw in person was Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” (1969-70) on a trip to Nevada with my parents. When you arrive, you kind of stumble upon it, there’s nothing else around, it’s on top of a Mesa, it was carved out in 1969 but now it’s since been worn down and blends in with the landscape.
Seeing it then, with my parents, was this moment where my life and my art were merging. The things I’m used to doing when I go home like hiking, looking for rocks, fishing, which is just what we do all the time, it’s what my dad does, were merging with these ideas from the art world and the history of art. Although the audience is potentially small, going there is part of the work, and that is something, maybe in an opposite way, what I can do with my work; bring the experience back. It’s definitely about spanning a distance.
TW: Was “Right Back At You” (2009) planned or was it a discovery?
LW: I made this piece at Skowhegan, Maine two summers ago for a nine-week residency I attended. It was a great time for me because, even though I travel and visit nature a lot, I’ve never had a studio in nature, and the studios there are in the forest. It made me nervous because I usually have an urban setting to play off of for my images and I was looking at this beautiful place thinking, “I can’t compete with this.” But it was actually the opposite. I got ideas, I was on hikes every day, I started looking at things differently and marking the trail in my mind, I started taking different photographs of more specific things like rocks and geometry in nature that were on a smaller scale than the vistas and landscapes. That residency really influenced the way I take photographs.
I also started another series at Skowhegan that consists of outdoor drywall pieces; they’re more architectural. The first one was hung in a tree. I built it around the branches to reverse the idea of nature versus the gallery, and outside versus inside. Once I did that, I was very interested in how the plane of the wall was being broken by these limbs, and when I was finishing that residency I thought, “What if the line that breaks through the wall weren’t a tree branch, what if it were light that creates the sculpture?” This work is a combination of the image, the idea, and how they relate to the sculpture, which is using light as a drawing tool.
TW: Rachel, what were your ideas behind this show? Why did you bring these three artists together?
RC: These three artists are revisiting the past; they’re interested in the physical processes of photographs, which, I feel, are very much wrapped up with what a photograph is. If these were done digitally, I don’t think they would mean the same, conceptually. I think they’re using physical properties in different ways: one growing things on top; one folding and manipulating; and one using what is depicted to make the depiction. I think everyone in the show is, in some way, going back to photography’s roots.
Letha’s work reminds me of the apocryphal story of “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (1895) and how everyone started running away because of the train on screen coming at them. Maybe we sometimes forget the lack of three-dimensionality of photos — it’s flat and there’s no way around it.
TW: Why do you think more people aren’t making work like this? Why are people using Photoshop to make swirly depictions?
LW: For me, I think I have to break things down in order to bring them back up. I’m a studio artist, and going to my studio every day to interact with my materials, I think, comes through in my work. It let’s the work do its thing. It’s like nature, I have to go back every day in order for it to do its thing, this practice, this craft takes a while and these things come out of it. The studio-less artists are those people who use Photoshop and think about it a different way.
I happened to see the show The Anxiety of Photography at the Aspen Art Museum when I was visiting, and I think that show hit the nail on the ahead when it comes to what I’m thinking about.
TM: What is the anxiety of photography?
LW: Where does that limit of what it can do end? What are the options for it? The digital age is its anxiety, and the only way to deal with it is to go back. The proliferation of the photographic image, the iPhones, the Facebooks, reproducibility and uniqueness is strange to me because I found printing in the darkroom as less precious; I know I can make it again, but other people might think it’s more precious because my artist’s hand is in it. I think the actual experience, the real thing, the moment the viewer is looking at it in the space of the gallery is the most important thing. That’s why I think digital images can fall short sometimes because how are they any different looking on the wall than on the computer?
* * *
Every Photo Graph Is In Visible, which features the work of Matthew Brandt, Christine Nguyen and Letha Wilson, is on display at Churner and Churner (205 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) until today, August 12.