JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 photographic works (most made up of multiple images), variously framed/displayed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery and entry area downstairs and in the two smaller galleries and foyer upstairs. 10 of the works are made from gelatin silver photograms, in sets of 2 or 4 hung as pairs or grids, and were made in 2015. Individual panel sizes range from roughly 24×24 to 40×21 (or reverse) and all of the works are unique. Each work is framed in wood made to match the source images, i.e. the images of teak are framed in teak. Upstairs, 1 work consists of 3 c-prints, made in 2015. Each panel is sized roughly 38×38 and the work is unique. Another work (displayed in its own room) is made up of 7 gelatin silver prints and 5 ceramic tiles, made in 2014. Each photograph/tile is sized 20×16 and the work is unique. The final 3 works on view are diptychs made from jacquard woven cotton, mohair, and linen textile in wood frames, made in 2015. Each panel is sized roughly 70×56 and the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: One of the inadvertent casualties of the widespread digital revolution in technology has been the previously-central photographic negative. Once the technical equivalent of the musical score to be “played” and interpreted in the darkroom by the photographer/printer, the negative was effectively eliminated from the photographic workflow by the digitization of images, and thereby largely consigned to the dustbin of history. Between today’s digital capture and high resolution scanning, most contemporary photographers have little need for the in-between step of the negative anymore.
But if the lost possibilities of the negative are getting you down, Lisa Oppenheim’s new show will provide some solace. Her newest works, and indeed much of her photography to date, challenges the conceptual obsolescence of the negative, and actually embraces it as a more open-ended and creative tool than we might have previously thought. Like a hacker looking for ways to repurpose old software, Oppenheim is unpacking the structural and functional idea of the negative and testing its limits. Definitionally, a negative has always been a guide or template enabling the mechanization of picture making, and Oppenheim is pushing on and extending that definition by boldly experimenting with unorthodox materials.
Most of the works in this show use wood as a negative. The logic of such a choice isn’t immediately obvious – wood is usually opaque, and so making negatives out of wood would normally yield flat whiteness, with all of the light blocked. The twist here is that Oppenheim has had the wood sliced so thinly that it has become transparent, and light passing through these sheets casts the tiny undulating lines of grain (as well as a knot or two) down on the light sensitive paper. Of course, different types of wood yield different patterns of lines, and so like “portraits”, Cherry and Birdseye Maple generate distinct topographies – Zerbawoood is scratchy and densely vertical, Apple is wavy and watery like ripples in a pond, Poplar is dark black and indistinct like watercolor, and Engineered Eastern Red Cedar is sharply textural. The images are engagingly abstract and scientific, pulling us into their intricate pathways and tree ring personalities.
Oppenheim has gone on to hang these large photograms in pairs and grids, creating boldly doubled and mirrored effects as the whorled swirls and striations repeat and echo across the surfaces. Yet another layer of conceptual information is delivered via the frames, which either match the often rare or endangered wood in the photogram or replace it with a cheaper common alternative of a similar look. This addition connects the works to those of Matthew Brandt, and opens up the “pictures made of what they depict” line of thinking. In this case, the all-over black and white patterns are so wondrously intense that the matched brown frames are a bit of a distraction – the works might have been more compelling with disappearing white frames that would have kept us swimming in the wavy lines, rather than pulling us back out to consider the cleverness of the juxtaposition.
Other works deconstruct the idea of the photographic negative in an alternate direction, leveraging the negative’s role as a visual set of instructions. Using a traditional jacquard loom as her output device, Oppenheim has fed pairs of textile pattern cards into the mechanism and let it run. Like two sandwiched negatives, the instructions on the punch cards conflict and compete, creating an end product that mixes the two patterns in chance ways, with glitches and broken empty zones woven into the chaos. Brendan Fowler has done something similar with an industrial sewing machine – in both cases, the imagery is being translated into “code” and fed into a “printer”, but in this case, the code isn’t digital pixels (it’s something related that came generations before) and the printer is a loom. Oppenheim’s lushly tweaked patterns thrum with the energy of a process fighting itself, and her objects circle back to the guts of the “what is a photograph” question that so many contemporary photographers are actively considering.
A third investigation of negatives recalls her earlier work with repurposed images of smoke. This time she has used a 1955 Manuel Alvarez Bravo image of a smoking kiln as her source, making four separate detail isolations of the abstract billows and plumes in the sky; she printed the fragments using the light of an open flame, echoing the fire in the ceramic process. These grainy abstractions have been hung with rectangular slabs of tile (some glazed, some not), creating a shifting installation of imagery and tactile ceramics that plays with the idea of reproducibility. But these smoke images aren’t as lushly elegant as her earlier cloud studies – these feel more purposely rough and imperfect, the physicality of all the cracks and degradations in the process coming more to the forefront.
In the end, this is a show where the braininess of the ideas seems to get a little ahead of the artworks themselves. Wood as photographic negative and textile loom as proto-photographic printer are two strong foundation ideas with lots of promising running room, but Oppenheim’s first iterations of these ideas feel like they need more refinement to really coalesce the power of their ingenuity. There is certainly a sophisticated searching smartness here, but the images haven’t entirely turned that originality into something durably vital. Oppenheim’s negative explorations are undeniably on an intriguing path, but we may just need to be patient as she anneals them into something purer.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The wood grain works range from $28000 to $42000 based on size, while the fabric negative work is $30000. The large jacquard woven works are $40000 each, and the installation of smoke prints and ceramic tiles was already sold. Oppenheim’s works have begun to slowly enter the secondary markets of late, but there have been too few transactions to reliably chart any price pattern. As a result, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.