[Above: Tilt/Swing #7, 2009 (gelatin silver print). Tilt/Swing #8, 2009. (gelatin silver print). Below: By arranging six large, camera-less photograms into the loose configuration of a shallow portal, Deschenes materializes Herbert Bayer’s diagram of 360˚ field of vision (1935).]
Liz Deschenes refuses enclosure and empties the screen in her second solo exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery. Rather than dictating views, Deschenes allows viewers to walk away with an introduction to their own bodies in time and space. Deschenes launches with dominant conditions of seeing by returning to a specific historical precedent. In her own way, she—like Herbert Bayer (1900-1985), László Moholy-Nagy (1895 -1946), and El Lissitzky (1890-1941), and others—instrumentalizes photography as a tool for liberating vision. Yet, instead of compressing space, architecture, and time, her work in Tilt /Swing decompresses time and space in order to invent it anew.
Photograms—photographic images made without cameras by placing objects directly onto photosensitive surfaces and exposing them to light—bring about negative shadow images varying in tone, depending upon the objects varying levels of transparency. Areas of the photosensitive surfaces (such as photographic paper) receiving no light appear white, while those exposed through transparent or semi-transparent objects appear gray. By arranging six large photograms into a loose configuration in a shallow portal, Deschenes materializes Herbert Bayer’s 1935 diagram of 360˚ field of vision. This “Bayer’s ring,” formed by empty rectangular surfaces, construes an “inclusive picture of all [viewpoint] possibilities.” Deschenes fills Bayer’s empty panels with photograms evacuated of all representational content.
Transforming Bayer’s diagram into architectural plan, Deschenes has transformed Bayer’s diagram into an architectural plan by sublimating the camera’s tilt/swing by covering the lens and producing camera-less photographic objects. This latent tilt/swing then re-emerges in the dynamic angling of the panels that refract the viewer’s wanderings. The various sizes of these reflective photograms adhere to the human scale of Bayer’s 5-foot tall line of sight. The spatial approximation ends there, however, as Deschenes expands the interstices of Bayer’s diagram to incorporate rather than veil her architectural surroundings. New perspectives of the gallery emerge between and around the suspended panels. A reflection is never fully separate from the space of the room or the duration of the viewer’s vision. Without human intervention the ensemble calcifies into a sculpture that endlessly looks back onto itself. It is the tilt and swing of the viewer’s body – not the absent camera – that allows the photographic panels to receive an image. Bayer’s checkered career is worth noting here: A denizen of Bauhaus, he left that groundbreaking institution to become art director of Vogue’s Berlin office—remaining in the Third Reich far after most of his fellow "progressives" had fled. Bayer actually did work for the Nazi regime, designing a tourist brochure celebrating that regime and its Fuhrer during the infamous 1936 Olympic games. However, such sycophantism availed him nothing with Nazis. In 1937, Bayer’s work was included in the regime’s Degenerate Art (“entartete Kunst“) exhibition as being “unGerman,” after which he fled to the U.S. and experienced a distinguished career.
In exposing photosensitive paper to the darkness of night before bringing the sheets back indoors to fix them with silver toner, Deschenes produced varying degrees reflective sheens. The photogram circumvents the responsibility of figurative depiction in favor of temporal record. While the photographic moment has passed, the image process continues. Passersby may scan these slippery surfaces, detecting their own cloudy features. Though out-of-focus and incomplete, we are pictured with a fleeting image more absorptive than reflective. As the exhibition carries on, atmospheric circumstances oxidize the photograms’ surfaces—manifesting a third, time-based material operation.
In her use of this unfolding process with motion’s expectation, Dueschenes confirms Moholy-Nagy’s supposition of photograms as light paintings—further breaking through limitations and possibilities of the photographic process in casting Tilt/Swing’s unique projections through light’s transforming qualities. Distinguishable from the light and design quality of Moholy-Nagy photograms are those of Man Ray (1890-1976) whose photograms are more about object quality. A colleague of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia during the New York Dada period, Man Ray produced images with light and photographic paper in a parallel to Andre Breton’s automatic writing. He arranged translucent and opaque objects—particularly three-dimensional ones in order to create unusual shadows on the two dimensional photographic paper. Man Ray immersed objects in developer during exposure, and used stationary and moving light sources—giving life to this technique. Superseding both Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, the cubist-inspired work of Christian Schad (1894-1962) was pivotal in experimentation with such cameraless photographic images—using found objects such as torn tickets and receipts in various arrangements. While Lissitzky—with his silver-gelatin photograms—created new conceptual product advertisements, avant-garde photographer Elfriede Stegemeyer (1908-1988) composed her silver-gelatin black-and-white photograms with human hands alone or other objects superimposed. While the latter’s concept varies markedly from that of the others, its competence demands inclusion within the canon of this process.
Deschenes’ conspicuously references the 1978 exhibition of John Szarkowski (1925-2007) in this ongoing body of work. In “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960,” Szarkowski delineated the world of photography between those seeing the medium as a means of self-expression and those holding it to be a method of exploration. Thus there were those who looked introspectively in mirrors to find themselves, while the others looked through windows to see that which awaits outside. At the same time Szarkowski stepped back from this dichotomy to suggest an ever-shifting continuum. While “Mirrors and Windows” focused on aesthetic arguments of the medium, it did little to resolve its continuing rancor. And its commoditization carries on.
When hung individually on a wall, Deschenes’ photograms function as foggy mirrors. While casting a wry rhetorical twist upon Szarkowski’s attempted dichotomy, these dulled surfaces are unable to fully carry this out. Meanwhile, the interstitial nonphotographic space, framed between “mirrors,” forms a “window” into the surrounding site. Such “vacillation” between “mirrors” and “windows” invites viewers to associate their reflections with a specific context.
Deschenes presents us with an unexpected dichotomy in this cameraless exploration: Comparatively small in scale, a representational black-and-white photograph renders a nonrepresentational photogram. Captured obliquely from the left side, we see a slice of projected light spill over the edge of a framed sheet of white. Inside the frame hangs a piece of emulsified paper that has been developed in the darkroom. Without ever being touched by light, this photogram elides every possibility for exposure and approaches only the barest definition of a photograph.
As if only surfacing for air, Deschenes’ camera makes an uncanny return to render two essential components of the analog image: paper and light. In reestablishing the documentary mode to underline the proximity of such disentangled elements, she self-consciously documents the option to dispense with depiction. Reintroduction of the camera is, in effect, a fleeting reappearance of the photographer – her lens, eye, and point of view.
Tilt /Swing by Liz Deschenes
Through June 14, 2009
Miguel Abreu Gallery
36 Orchard Street (between Canal & Hester), NYC 10002