Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works @New York Public Library

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing photographic and video works from 19 different contemporary atists, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in two separate gallery spaces on the third floor of the library.

The following artists/photographers have been included, with the number of works, their processes, and their dates as background:

  • Roy Arden: 3 cyanotypes on found material, 2018
  • Erica Baum: 4 pigmented inkjet prints, 2018
  • Eric William Carroll: 1 book with pigment ink prints, 2012
  • Liz Deschenes: 2 silver-toned black and white photograms, 2018
  • Susan Derges: 1 chromogenic print, 2013
  • Kathleen Herbert: 1 digital video, 15:22, 2018
  • Katherine Hubbard: 6 gelatin silver prints, 2016
  • Mona Kuhn: 3 pigmented inkjet prints on metallic paper, 2014
  • Owen Kydd: 1 video, 2018
  • María Martínez-Cañas: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1999
  • Meghann Riepenhoff: 12 cyanotypes with algae, debris from shoreline, 2015-2018; 1 cyanotype, 2017
  • Alison Rossiter: 12 sets of gelatin silver prints (four to seven prints each), 2018
  • Ulf Saupe: 2 cyanotype photograms on glass and concrete, 2017
  • Lindy Smith: 3 kallitypes, 2007
  • Kunié Sugiura: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1999
  • Penelope Umbrico: 1 installation of archival inkjet prints, 2018
  • Mike Ware: 1 set 4 cyanotypes, 1996, 2 cyanotypes, 2007
  • Letha Wilson: 4 inkjet prints, 2018
  • Ellen Ziegler: 2 cyanotypes with burned holes and gouache on paper, 2010

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The well-crafted Anna Atkins exhibit at the New York Public Library (review here) offers a rare opportunity for modern audiences to get introduced to and inspired by the work of this 19th century photographic innovator. For those already familiar with her pioneering photobook(s), her approach provides plenty of available entry points for further thinking, from her meticulous study of the natural world via up close photography to her technical experimentation with and mastery of the cyanotype process. Anna Atkins Refracted takes this idea of Atkins’ ongoing artistic influence and turns it into a lively group show of contemporary works, gently reminding us of her continued relevance.

Atkins’ intimate interest in plant forms has been used by several artists as an obvious starting point for further aesthetic investigations. Kunié Sugiura employs live plants in her compositions, pressing them between sheets of glass and allowing their leaves and tendrils to curve and wander, while Lindy Smith turns her attention to the long wisps of grasses and stems, highlighting their dense clusters of insistent lines. Others have followed the plant connection less directly. Erica Baum revisits her earlier book-edge compositions, making new color works that discover fragments of plants in the pages, while Owen Kydd has made a video study of a three-dimensional house plant, the rendering slowly turning to show us each leaf from multiple shifting angles.

A few artists have bridged out further, taking Atkins’ interest in the very close up and applying it to alternate subject matter. Penelope Umbrico has made a wall-filling installation of mysterious prints that capture the dusted screen surfaces of old computers, tablets, and smartphones. Katherine Hubbard froze photographic paper in ice and then exposed it to light to document the intricacies of ice shards and crystals. And Roy Arden has made cyanotype images on unfolded paper boxes, each decorated with clusters of tiny nails, safety pins, roots, and other loose hardware.

The process side of Atkins’ artistic personality comes through in works made by photographers who largely responded to her technical prowess. Some extended the cyanotype process in new directions, like Eric William Carroll’s accordion fold book of dappled cyanotype trees or Meghan Riepenhoff’s massive cyanotype composition made from the visual remnants of rainfall, forest debris, and wind. Others took the technical inspiration and applied it to their own process investigations, from Alison Rossier’s subtly colored clusters of expired paper to Letha Wilson’s iterative rephotography of photograms and hand cut interventions.

Perhaps the most literal of the new works comes from artists diving deeply into Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-1853). Meghann Riepenhoff pays homage to the landmark photobook with a series of her own cyanotype views of algae, introducing actual natural specimens and shore debris to the surface of the works. And Ulf Saupe uses a bit of clever visual misdirection to make his connection, creating cyanotypes that look hauntingly like Atkins’ transparent layers of algae but are actually twisted plastic bags (reminding us of the scourge of plastic tossed into our oceans).

Seen together, this group show does just what it was intended to do – forcefully and thoughtfully connect Atkins to the present, in ways that reinforce the ongoing importance of her vision. It’s clear from this diverse and well-edited selection of recently made work, Atkins remains a more vital source of sophisticated contemporary inspiration than we might ever have guessed.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the large number of artists included in this group show, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market prices.

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Read more about: Alison Rossiter, Ellen Ziegler, Eric William Carroll, Erica Baum, Katherine Hubbard, Kathleen Herbert, Kunié Sugiura, Letha Wilson, Lindy Smith, Liz Deschenes, Maria Martinez-Cañas, Meghann Riepenhoff, Mike Ware, Mona Kuhn, Owen Kydd, Penelope Umbrico, Roy Arden, Susan Derges, Ulf Saupe, New York Public Library (NYPL)

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