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.
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.
Colleen Mullins, Untitled (7:2007)
Colleen Mullins’ Elysium: Urban Canopy Loss in Post-Katrina New Orleans at the Hand of Man
When visiting my parents after the destruction caused by Hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Dennis (2005), I was stunned at the transformation of my childhood home. Crews worked to remove wreckage and to replace the debris with new construction. But this was expected. The transience of buildings, especially suburban shopping centers and other recent construction, seems natural. What was truly disorienting was the extent to which the forest landscapes lining highways and abutting neighborhoods had been altered by the storms. It was shocking to see what little remained of hundreds of years worth of natural growth, shredded in a matter of a few short hours. Trees were twisted and torn in unnatural ways, fallen, or just absent. Previously filled space was opened, the tree line thinned. Now, my family’s home is no longer surrounded by thick forest. The yard is all but empty. The few remaining trees seem dislocated by their isolation. This culling of trees has shifted my experience of the space; it no longer feels like the place I grew up. In the absence of the familiar foliage, it is a new place.
A parallel depletion took place in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (2005). The photographs of Colleen Mullins’ exhibition Elysium: Urban Canopy Loss, on view at Bethel University’s 9th Street Entry Gallery, depict this loss. Her portraits of trees, survivors of an intense battle with a storm they could not escape, are supplemented with newspaper clippings, personal testimony, and smaller images for context. The damage is, sadly, evident throughout. In Mullins’ photographs, the trees appear as amputees. Limbs are conspicuously absent, and we are left to imagine how the phantom foliage once filled out the canopy within these neighborhoods. The mournful quality of this loss is balanced against the strength and perseverance of the remaining umbrage. It is easy to see these photographs as surrogate portraits of the people of the city, but one should be careful not to diminish the way in which the images are truly about the trees and places they inhabit.
Mullins is particularly attentive to the context of her subjects. Her compositions reflect the intertwining of the trees with their urban environments, just as the trees’ locations bind their fate to the destructive expediency of cleaning crews. In one image, winnowed treetops appear to emerge from the painted tree trunk on a retaining wall. The fullness of the painted tree serves as a haunting counterpoint to the actual tree’s lack of lateral limbs. Several photographs show trees surrounded at the base by a peculiar mulch of rubble and scrap. This does not nourish the tree. Instead, the tree becomes a much-abused tool, serving as a backstop for bulldozers scraping up the debris.. In another image, only trunks remain, sawed off at the top, so that power lines can run unhindered overhead. The trunks become two-story stumps, as tall as the adjacent apartment building. Their severed pine branches rest at their feet like clippings under a barber’s chair, ready to be swept away. In the end, the four trees pictured are reduced to likenesses of the utility poles beside them. Other photographs reveal a “y”-shaped canal cut from the top-center of trees to allow wires to pass freely through. These paths carved through the trees by workers restoring power and utilities to the remaining homes and residents may be necessary elements of reconstruction. Unfortunately, they put a priority on speed and human convenience that comes at the expense of further damage to these leafy residents. Mullins’ careful framing of these images accentuates the geometric, ordered, and systematic removal of limbs. This kind of cutting is everything that the storm was not, except merciless.
The decision to carve through the remaining canopy recalls how use and misuse of the land around the city magnifies the damage of the storm to both human and non-human citizens. Mullins’ photographs highlight the complexity of social and environmental choices that lead to this kind of savage pruning. The ruins of the flora reveal the priorities of the human culprits behind their demise. While the trees are often treated as obstacles to recovery efforts by city workers, Mullins lays bare our intimate connection to them as part of our sense of place and home. The most ubiquitous image in post-hurricane photography is that of the house branded with the brightly colored “x,” indicating the search status of the property. Similar markings show up in some of her images – spray painted neon circles and “x”‘s on trees. The symbol is generally foreboding not unlike the death toll tallied in the quadrants of the “x” on the home markings. It is portentous that the mode of address for house, tree, and the occasional utility pole might be so similar. In one photograph, a tree stands in front of an empty lot, bearing a blue ribbon and a handmade sign that is simultaneously evocative of a roadside memorial and a yard sale notice. The sign recounts how the trees are all that remain to enable the owner to identify the former location of her house, now just an empty yard. The blue bow becomes yet another new color in the litany of memorial ribbons. Another photograph offers the inverse: a tree stands surrounded by bright pink structures, placeholders for future houses. The sign in the front of this yard, a remnant of Paul Chan’s 2007 staging of Waiting for Godot, recounts the stage setting from the play – “A country road, a tree, evening.” The sign, though antecedent, remains on the lot as a kind of counterweight (Godot, after all, never arrives) to the promise of the Project Pink houses. These bold colors and markings stand alongside the trees as both memorial and hope for the future of this place to become home again. But Mullins’ pictures bear witness to the fact that the structures and their surrounding natural elements will remain forever changed
Mullins’ photographs and supplementary materials, along with a web presence that offers the specific geography of these sites using a Google satellite map, direct us to the particularity of this space: as a place of (un)natural ruin, of environmental instability, and as a beloved home. New Orleans is famous for its above-ground cemeteries, built so that burials are not disturbed by the proximity of the water table. In a photograph of one such cemetery, a high brick grave with its top smashed out serves as a bed for the growth of a new tree. The small tree is a sign of hope and life amidst this tragedy, yet its branches separate into a “y,” recalling the shape of trees with canals cut through their canopy. The hope of this photograph and the city are marked by the travails that razed and reshaped the homes of its inhabitants.
Urban Canopy Loss in Post-Katrina New Orleans at the Hands of Man, photographs by Colleen Mullins
9th Street Entry Gallery, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN
Feb 29 – April 12, 2008; gallery hours: Wed-Fri 3-6pm, Sat 12-5pm