San Francisco

The Captain Has Turned On the Fasten Seatbelts Sign

Nina Katchadourian, "Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style #18-19," 2011. C-print. Edition of 8. Diptych: 7.157 x 6 inches each.

The thing about traveling on an airplane is that we take for granted how phenomenally absurd it is. There we sit, unfazed, hurdling through space at 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet above the ground in a metal tube, surrounded by complete strangers whom in all likelihood we will never see again. There is also the unspoken airplane etiquette that we all hope the stranger sitting next to us will follow: please don’t talk, don’t move, don’t get up…basically please do everything you can to appear as though you don’t exist. With these restrictions, an airplane in flight is a very difficult place to do anything more than sleep, read, stare out the window or watch movies with only the most watered-down content. Unless you are Nina Katchadourian.

For Seat Assignment, her fifth solo show at Catherine Clark Gallery, Katchadourian culled from a body of work made on more than seventy flights over the past two years. Now, artists reading this might be terrified by having their workspace confined to the miniscule square-footage of an airline seat and the plane’s lavatory. For Katchadourian, it is a pragmatic opportunity to bring her “studio” with her. Using only her camera phone and the materials at hand, she creates everything from improvised classical Flemish self-portraits to miniature composed landscapes and worlds.

Nina Katchadourian. Excerpt from the Extreme Sports series, 2010. From the Seat Assignment series.

As its title suggests, the series Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style uses objects such as inflatable neck pillows, napkins, bits of plastic and whatever else Katchadourian has on hand to make self-portraits in the style of classical Flemish paintings. Window Seat Suprematism references the fundamental geometric forms of the early 20th-century Russian movement. The images in the series, taken of the planes’ wings through the window, create compelling minimalist, geometric compositions that even Malevich could approve of.

Nina Katchadourian, "Meteor," from the Disasters series, 2010. From the Seat Assignment series.

In-flight magazines supply some of the most fruitful material. One work from Landscapes uses black sweater lint to turn a snow-covered mountain into a smoldering volcano. In Disasters, pretzel crumbs become a devastating landslide off mountain road. Black lint makes another appearance, with the addition of other various detritus, in Birds of New Zealand, adorning the heads and bodies of exotic birds and giving them an even more elaborate flare. The strangest thing about these images is how believable the compositions are. While it may be obvious that the pretzels on the road are indeed pretzels and not rocks, or that a bird does not have a cashew shaped appendage on its head in real life, the objects give a genuine moment of pause, plus the feeling that while absurd, it could be real.

Nina Katchadourian, "Wigeon" from the Birds of New Zealand series, 2011. From the Seat Assignment series.

Katchadourian views a situation that most of us find claustrophobic, boring and tedious as a challenge to highlight both the fantastic and mundane aspects of air travel. The sense of humor and improvisational genius that make up Seat Assignment exemplify an artist setting certain parameters for herself and successfully working within them to create work that is both complex and light hearted.

Seat Assignment will be on view at Catherine Clark Gallery until May 26, 2012.