Katherine Wolkoff, The Critical Zone @Benrubi

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 black and white photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung (or placed on shelves) against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 2015 and 2017. Physical sizes are either 50×40 or 30×24 inches (or reverse), and all of the prints are available in editions of 7. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the urgency of global climate change becomes increasingly hard to deny, artists of all kinds have grappled with how to respond to this critical issue with potency, personal connection, and originality. And the fact is, it isn’t easy. While traveling to the far corners of the globe to document melting glaciers, powerful storms, and devastating droughts is perhaps straightforward, finding a new way into material that has been engaged by so many others presents a real creative challenge, particularly because the scale and complexity of the problem defy simple visual summarization.

Katherine Wolkoff’s approach to this tough subject has been primarily to look down, closely examining the granular textures and surfaces of climate change rather than the sweeping landscapes and vistas that often provide evidence of its perils. Using both her 4×5 camera and a flatbed scanner, she has made images that resist easy recognition, the details of small things convincingly employed to mimic the appearance of large scale aerials, with a few wider shots mixed in to further confuse our instincts. As a result, each of Wolkoff’s images can be read on two distinct levels – first, as an abstract study of the patterns found in natural surface texture, and second, as an indirect meditation on the individual causes and effects of climate change as they present themselves at ground level.

Three images document the power and fragility of glaciers. In one photograph, light and dark striations have been pulled across a rock face, the geology of millenia cut into stripes by the passing force. In another, a small seashell is locked in ice, alluding to forgotten tales of oceans and continents that once were, but its transparent tomb is now breaking apart, the ice cracking into sharp shards. And a third offers a close up of melting ice, the once immense power of a glacier dissipating into crusty pellets and dirty crystals. Wolkoff doesn’t show us lonely icebergs or stranded polar bears, but the impending undercurrent of doom in her pictures is just as obvious.

Wolkoff adds drought to the menu with pictures of dry creekbeds, dusty salt rivers, and parched runoff rivulets that haven’t seen rain for years. Again scale is deliberately confounded, with a layered close up alternating with a broader sweep of land, the crackled surfaces in both cases looking almost like flaking dry paint.

Other works bring in additional influences and consequences. An image of oil sands alludes to the mining of petroleum and other fossil fuels that continues to enable the global temperature rise, the tiny droplets appearing like spots of light amid the gritty texture. Rising temperatures are also represented by the encroachment of invasive species into geographies unprepared to deal with the new invaders. Wolkoff’s images of bark beetle trails find squiggly gestural motion in the insects’ tunnels through wood, the curvy lines becoming all over abstraction and insistent pulsation. And intimate photographs of foam on water and lichen blooms look like a darkly gloomy sand beach or an explosion, their natural forms tinged with a mood of uneasiness.

Wolkoff’s attentive photographs turn our view of the environment away from over arching imponderables and back toward minute specifics, where invisible temperature changes produce visible evidence. Her lush mid grey tones encourage us to see nuance rather than contrast, evoking the gradation and subtlety in evolving processes rather than the extremes of failure. Her pictures show us systems in flux, attempting to recalibrate in the face of harsh changes in normal conditions. In that sense, they are both quietly hopeful and ultimately disheartening – the planet is churning and struggling to adapt, but the intermediate results, however beautiful the pictures might appear, are undeniably worrying.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4000 or $8000, based on size. Wolkoff’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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