Photography in the Abstract

lora reynolds gallery, Austin

Through March 7, 2009
by Rachel Cook

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      Walead Beshty
      Two Sided Picture (YY)
      Fujicolor Crystal Archive Type C, December 14th 2006, Valencia, CA
      2006
      Color photographic paper
      14 x 11 inches unframed
      Courtesy the artist and lora reynolds gallery, Austin

      View Gallery

      The cover of ARTnews read: The New ABSTRACT PHOTO. Maureen Mahoney decided to probe. As her starting point for the exhibition Photography in the Abstract, Mahoney began with a series of questions: is the most authentic abstract photograph made by light only? When can a representational photograph be considered abstract? Could a photograph of something in the world that looks abstract be considered truly abstract, when it is the subject and not the process that is abstract? Mahoney selected a variety of artists to hash out these questions, among them both contemporary and historical photographers, video and conceptual artists. Each of these artists pushes the limitations of the camera and darkroom processes, creating a dialogue about the nature of abstraction within the photographic image. Although not everything in the exhibition addresses Mahoney’s questions head on, some of the most interesting contemporary works create a compelling conversation about light and materiality, abandoning the recognizable subject matter that a photograph often delivers.

      Walead Beshty’s work operates in “the tension between the material and the optical in the photographic artifact.”* At Lora Reynolds, Two Sided Picture (YY) (2006) and Two Sided Picture (RR) (2006) create the impression of kaleidoscopic prisms of blue and yellow or rose and orange triangles. By folding color photographic paper and exposing it to light, Beshty creates a multi-dimensional geometric abstract image of tone, shape and unusual, haunting colors. The title of an earlier image, Pictures Made by My Head With the Assistance of Light (2006), could describe any photograph; like a Joseph Kosuth instructional work, the title references the process by which it was made. Beshty’s strength is in using the intrinsic properties of photography—light and materiality—to create something that looks nothing like a photo.

      Eileen Quinlan’s work explores the boundary between a still life and an abstract image. To create each image, Quinlan sets up a series of mirrors, colored gels, burlap and smoke and then photographs it, essentially creating a gothic-esque still life. The resulting photographs, such as Demystification #8 (2008), have an eerie transparency and depth to them. Surprisingly, her images look most akin to Beshty’s even though the two artists' processes are so disparate. Quinlan thinks of the work as photographs of nothing. By cropping, or editing out any evidence of the still life she is photographing, Quinlan renders the image completely abstract, a photograph of light and smoke.

      One of the more controversial Tuner Prize recipients, Wolfgang Tillmans has had a long career as a photographer. Better known for images of his peers and various subcultures, Tillmans has also created two more abstract series, Lighter and Paper Drop. In these series, Tillmans uses the paper on which the picture is printed as both the subject and object of the work. In this exhibition, Tillmans’s Lighter 56 (2008) and Lighter 63 (2008) use exposed paper to create deep aqua marine stripes as well as one dark grey stripe that hint at the qualities of an oil painting with their rich, thick hue. Tillmans also embraces the accidental folds or creases that can occur during the developing process, so that the photographic image becomes a sculpture of paper and light.

      Together, the works in Photography in the Abstract raise a fundamental question: isn’t every photograph an abstraction of reality? Mahoney’s answer is yes. The very title of her exhibition resists the classification of “abstract photography” and replaces it with a broader conception of abstraction in photography. Some critics might classify some of the contemporary works in Photography in the Abstract as “abstract photography,” but Mahoney’s exhibition successfully suggests that these artists aren’t thinking about abstraction per se. They’re thinking about photographic processes and the material and optical qualities of the photograph. Abstraction is merely an after-effect.

      *2008 Whitney Biennial Catalogue, http://www.whitney.org/www/2008biennial/www/?section=artists&page=artist_beshty.

      Rachel Cook is an artist, writer, and independent curator currently living in Austin. She is currently working on a show for DiverseWorks in 2009.

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