JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and a second smaller room. 19 of the works are unique chemical treatment on RA-4 paper, made in 2016 and 2017. The other 2 works are unique c-prints, made in 2017. Physical sizes for all the photographs range from roughly 30×20 to 93×47.
The show also incudes a section of 15 tintypes, made in 2017 with the assistance of Rowan Hasty. Each is sized 8×10 and is unique. In addition, 3 artist’s sketchbooks (from 2013-2017) are on view in vitrines. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When we think about the process of stepping into the darkroom (or some other pace where light can be controlled) and intentionally making a camera-less photogram, the delicate and often unwieldy balance between precision and chance becomes the most intriguing facet of the exercise. Going back to Anna Atkins, and then up through Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, and on to contemporary practitioners like Adam Fuss, the history of the photogram has largely been driven by a common mindset of thoughtful deliberateness trying to manage uncertainty. While unexpected blurs, fogs, and shadows have introduced elements of serendipity, motion, and abstraction to the resulting artworks, for the most part, photogram makers (and chemical experimenters as well) have consistently arranged their hand crafted, premeditated compositions with meticulous and painstaking care. By attempting to minimize and/or control the whimsies of chance, these artists have encouraged purposeful determination to dominate the unpredictable forces of accident and randomness.
Mariah Robertson’s lasting contributions to the genre of the photogram fly in the face of these many unspoken conventions. Since the very beginning of her artistic career, she has approached the photogram as a performative high-wire encounter, where physicality and gestural expressiveness are the primary drivers of the eventual outcomes. She has largely allowed chance to run wild, especially in her watery chemical-based works. She has embraced eye-popping additive color, pushing the limits of color mixing. And she has rejected the constraints of formal squared-off paper, ripping and cutting the edges of her prints with slashing abandon or letting her compositions unroll onto seemingly endless spools of paper. While Floris Neusüss and Walead Beshty have followed some of these same paths, Robertson has consistently taken ambitious risks, bringing the body back into dialogue with the photogram process and making the collaboration an ever-shifting two-way interaction that changes with each iteration.
This show feels like a taking stock moment in her artistic development. While all of the works on view here are brand new, the show veers off on several distinct vectors, each the continuation of ideas that have been percolating around and evolving for the better part of a decade. In general, each strain of work feels increasing confident and resolved, and yet there is a uneasy restlessness to so many streams being followed simultaneously. Things get interesting when we start to see the ideas cross-pollinate and weave together, their common roots peeking through even though the approaches and impulses have diverged in the years since.
Many of Robertson’s largest new works continue her exploration of repetition, where formal elements (or outlines/shadows of them) stutter across the surface of the compositions as colors waft in and out. When the pared down shapes are tightly layered and clustered, the effect is densely frenetic, almost manic, the step by step iterations quickly piling up; and when those same shapes are given some space to breathe, their lyricism comes out, like echoes of a common refrain. In the back room, Robertson has hung a gathering of works edge to edge, each using the same motif, which reinforces this idea of theme and variation – the patterns of curves seem to tumble, like sparkling chandeliers or the figure/ground outlines of hips. Back in the front room, those elegant anthropomorphic swoops can be seen again, albeit in even looser and simpler formal arrangements, this time in washes of seductive magenta and purple.
Another line of thinking Robertson has been following of late turns on the improvisational use of splashy chemicals, and a pair of new works continue these investigations. Using folds and bends of the paper as a method for separating areas of the compositions, she has allowed drips and rivulets to cascade down various inclines, the results filled with energetic verve. While the cutout works feel intricately managed, these images feel almost violent in their physicality, their brash performative motion captured in the active movement of the fluids.
A third set of pictures takes us back to where Robertson started in her making of photograms, with more mannered compositions that blend nude male bodies, geometric arrays, plant forms, and other found imagery amid leaks of eerie color. Shaman I and Shaman II reprise this layering of elements, adding snakes, glowing lightubs, caverns, and a well placed plastic fork to the allusive, almost mystical aggregations. Nearby, a series of shadowy tintypes provide some subject matter background, the source material for the male nudes now more clear, and the consistent interest in the shapes of bodies more apparent.
And it is this interest in bodies that ultimately ties all of these disparate aesthetic threads together. Robertson’s photograms, whatever their end form, are predicated on nuances of physical interaction, both between the artist and her changing approaches to process, and in the formal elements that she uses (or draws from her abstractions). She’s boldly transformed the historical delicacy of the photogram into something more akin to a full contact sport, giving her works a sense of authentic vitality that is grounded in the intensity of her expressiveness.
Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced between $6500 and $23000 each, based on size. The tintypes and sketchbooks are not for sale. Robertson’s work has just begun to enter the secondary markets in the past few years. Prices for those few lots have ranged between roughly $5500 and $15000, but given the small number of transactions, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.