this essay originally appeared March 5, 2014 on mnartists.org
Peter Happel Christian’s exhibition, Sword of the Sun, at Macalester College addresses the materiality of photography literally — his work is as likely to materialize as object as it is in print. Framed contact sheets, a photogram, a few color prints, and a sheet of photographic paper developed with the drag of dripping chemicals, all hang in the gallery among a series of sculptures made from cardboard boxes, mirrors, shards of glass and two tables of meticulously ordered sundry materials. The tables are laid out in such a way that the various articles serve as detailed citations, evidence of mental associations connecting shape and form, documentation of the material resonance between objects, time, nature, and the photographic record itself.
The contact sheet is a longstanding resource for photographers. Displaying positive images of the photographs on a roll of film, contact sheets are primarily used to make selections of one photo over another. Happel Christian presents them for view as a whole, both hanging in frames and laid out on the tables. Capitalizing on the shifts from one frame to another — depicting the same subject from different moments and perspectives — he treats the contact sheet’s assembled thumbnails as a meditation on the movement of his attention through the flux of the world. Some of the contact sheets are pulled from work made years earlier, so that the photographic record’s preservation of time looks both forward and backward. He’s effectively exhuming past intuitions and repurposing them in his aesthetic and conceptual present.
In Once Around, two bundles of paper rest on the gallery floor. Happel Christian tied up and placed a stack of 365 sheets of 8.5×11” black-and-white fiber paper next to a stack of 365 sheets of 4×6” resin-coated paper; he then left the bundles of paper on a cedar pallet in his yard for one year. A year’s worth of sunlight exposed the paper but no images, while the warp of the weather wrote itself onto the surface, developing a record of the sheets’ time in the sun, wind, rain, and snow. The pallet is displayed in the exhibition, propped against the gallery wall as if casually moved out of the way and forgotten, its purpose complete. Some mixture of soil, moisture, pulp and emulsion have marked the pallet’s surface where the bundles sat. Their removal appears to have been forced: a chunk of raw wood is now visible at the corner of the larger stain, as if it had to be pried loose. Small patches of paper remain where the bundled sheets resisted separation from their resting place. It is as if the paper, under the weight of a year’s exposure to the elements and in recognition of material kinship with the wood, began to bond to the pallet.
Three straightforward color prints, Search/Shade I-III, hang on the wall, but unanchored at the base so that the bottom edge rises, ever so slightly, out into the space of the gallery. The figures in these photos cover their eyes to block the intensity of the sun above. Their arms create a diagonal that reappears in other images and objects throughout the gallery space. Indeed, such forms recur throughout the exhibition — circles, crescent moons, narrow rectangles, etc. The figures are determined to look at the sun — our most basic marker of time’s passage — despite their inability to do so without mitigating its brightness. Their determination is indicative of the way Happel Christian asks us to look at the materials in the exhibition. He presents items for view, shaped by the power of time and light, while exposing for us the mediating process of his physical shaping of objects and images in order to bring us to these perceptions.
Against this backdrop, the aforementioned tables, Infinite Field II & III, become a kind of research hub for all of the other pieces in the gallery. As a collection of data the assemblages are at once tantalizing and elusive. Stacks of cut-open security envelopes are layered one upon another next to neat piles of photographic images that beg to be lifted for a quick look beneath. Happel Christian simultaneously splays open what is hidden while obstructing thorough inquisition. Taken together, his stacks of photos, papers, and open book pages create new compositions; their discrepancies in size and degree of overlap allow for one to extend out from under the other. We may wish to see that which is still unavailable, but the interplay of images we are given offer propositions at least as compelling as the mystery of what might yet lie beneath.
Objects of obvious significance — black mirrored stones, finely printed photographs, a collection of clay discs with impressions formed by sea-glass — are juxtaposed with what appears to be the material detritus of Happel Christian’s studio process: wedges of wood, slivers of paper from trimming prints, halves of photo paper boxes, a disposable camera still in its silver wrapper. The equivalencies generated by these relationships allow the byproducts of creation to reclaim a place of importance in the construction of thought and experience. Small rocks serve to weight books and prints down onto the table; other stones serve to support the glass tabletop and the angled feet of the sawhorse legs. The archeological precision of the distribution of objects over the table orders these artifacts of material experience and interaction, all with equal deliberation and intention.
In Sword of the Sun, Happel Christian forms a coded but only partially decipherable legend for the interconnectedness of light, time, and our ability to process the experiences of each. Put together on a sturdy conceptual structure, the impact of this work is first viscerally material as a phenomenal experience.
Here are some images from the the exhibition Small Press: An Exhibition of Artist Books and Publications that I curated at Bethel University’s Johnson Gallery. The exhibition is on view through December 14, 2012.
The show includes the following books:
- Cindy Hinant & Nicolas Guagnini, FLAV (2010)
- Sarah Bodman, X Exercises for Kurt Johannessen (2012)
- Mishka Henner, Less Americains (2012)
- Francesco Spampinato, Go Human Not Ape (2012)
- Heidi Nielson, Home Planetarium Survey (2008)
- Mishka Henner, Astronomical (2011)
- Mungo Thomson, Negative Space (2006)
- Paula McCartney, On Thin Ice, In a Blizzard (2011)
- Luke Strosnider, Ansel Adams | New Landscapes (2009)
- Kim Beck, A Field Guide to Weeds (2007)
- John Johnston & Tom Wik, Longfellow, Mpls. A Song of Hiawatha (2012)
- Chad Rutter, Scenes From the Great American Non-Site (2011)
- Jan Estep, Ad Infinitum and Desert Maps (2005)
- Jan Estep, Beneath the surface (of language), Silver Island Mountain Byway, Wendover, Utah, USA (2009)
- Chad Rutter & Emily Roehl, Pacific Tourist Redux (2011)
- Nao Tsuda, Coming Closer (2009)
- Taishi Hirokawa, Still Crazy (2011)
- Suguru Takeuchi, Radiation Tokyo (2011)
- Ellen Mueller, Book of Enid (2011)
- Caitlin R. Warner, The Commodity: A Love Story Told in Receipts (2012)
- Anouk Kruithof, A Head With Wings (2011)
- Michael Jang, Summer Weather (2012)
- Eric William Carroll, Human Error 01 (2011)
- Lester B. Morrison, Lester Becomes Me (2010)
- Lester B. Morrison, Library for Broken Men (2010)
- Heyward Hart, Joseph Michael Lopez, Andrew Laumann, Trevor Powers, RaMell Ross, Irina Rozovsky; Curated by Carl Gunhouse & Ginevra Shay, Everything That Rises Must Converge (2012)
- Matt Wiegle, Monsters & Condiments
- Andy Sturdevant, Selected Highlights…(2010)
- Ann Kalmbach & Tana Kellner, Presidential Quiz (1997)
- Paige de Wees, Pharmacies of Asia (2011)
- Amanda Lovelee, Call and Answer (2011)
- Jennifer Danos & John Fleischer, Dislocation (2012)
- Micah Lidberg, Rise and Fall (2012)
- Xavier Robel & Helge Reumann, Elvis Road (2007)
Jason Fulford’s new book The Mushroom Collection is designed to accompany his exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The fifth installment of curator David Little’s New Pictures series, the exhibition begins in the gallery, spreads out into the museum, and is published into the wider world. The exhibition is the latest iteration in Fulford’s Mushroom Collector projects. It combines his own photographs, a short black and white video with a squeaky undulating soundtrack that permeates the exhibition, and the collection of mushroom photographs by an anonymous photographer that initiated Fulford’s project. The mushroom photos are small and scattered throughout the gallery, intermixed with the other photographs and varying heights on the wall – sometimes growing in unexpected places: over the wall text and onto the museum’s signage. Fulford’s photographs in the exhibit are poetic and understated. The collection of images is quite varied in size and format, incorporating contact sheets and photograms. Formal echoes and recurring shapes move the viewer from one visual phrase to the next. It is more sensory than cognitive – about seeing and associating on an intuitive level.
Fulford spreads these near visual equivalences outside the gallery. Working with other departments of the museum, as part of the MIA’s Art ReMix program, Fulford’s mushrooms pop up in displays throughout the museum, commingling artifacts and visual tropes from his other photographs and previous installations of the project with the MIA’s permanent collection. Though mostly sculptural in nature (aside from the indicative mushroom photograph serving as a label for the intervention), the spirit is the same as with Fulford’s photos. The associations are visual and often funny – a wry, though often oblique, commentary on the larger museum collection.
It is within the context of this exhibition that Fulford creates the small book The Mushroom Collection (9.5”x6.5”, 24pgs). Clean and economic in design, the book begins and ends with a page of perforated color stamps of Fulford’s photographs. Between those pages are black and white reproductions of pieces from the MIA’s collection and elements from Fulford’s work. Scattered throughout the pages, small “X” marks indicate locations ready to receive the colored stamps, inviting the viewer to intervene in the book, as Fulford has in the museum, making associations based on visual confluence, the experience of the exhibition, or some other idiosyncratic preference.
Assuming that the distribution of the book in the gallery and its proximity to the infiltration of the extant museum might hold a special key to completing the book in its most fitting form, and as an excuse to complete the search for mushroom throughout the MIA, Paula McCartney and I set about with book in hand to find each mushroom and let it guide our placement of the stamps onto the “X”s. In the copies of the book from DAP, the stamps come with adhesive. However, due to concerns about providing stickers to miscreants within the museum, the copies available at the MIA require a person to smuggle in their own sticky substances in order to complete the book onsite. We presumed that finding the pieces from the permanent collection that were reproduced in the black and white pages of the book would give us some indication of the proper stamp selections for that page. We located sixteen mushroom interventions within the galleries, some of them bearing direct connection to the black and white reproductions in the book. With others, however, the mushroom and Fulford’s object intervention had no direct correspondence with the available stamps. Thus, in the end, we were forced to make our own connections between pages and stamps, rather than retrace and record the ones Fulford made.
Initially, this was frustrating. My preconception was that the book was a companion to the exhibition, a way of pushing the viewer to engage it in full, creating an archive of the experience by completing the book. Instead, the book is a way to encourage the viewer to give in to Fulford’s process and way of thinking, creating a record of that individual experience occurring within oneself. So, while this experience is certainly enhanced by viewing the exhibition, the book is able to function without that immediate presence. Readers can purchase a copy from DAP, tear out the stickers and paste them in while sitting in their living room. Though one might be less inclined to complete the redistribution of the stickers when the book was paid for, rather than being pulled from the pocket in the gallery, The Mushroom Collection is more satisfying as an experience and as a visual object when the color images pop up beside the black and white ones – plus, one can’t really read the book without covering the “X”s and associating the forms into new ideas.