Hidden In Plain Sight

Artist Jeremy Bolen brought back a lot of pictures from his trip to Geneva, Switzerland last year, which are currently on view at Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago. Bolen’s one-man show titled CERN, features conceptual photography that is driven by unique processes of exposing film, processes which point toward challenging questions about the veracity of art. The Geneva photos aren’t exactly your standard images of a bucolic European countryside, though there are a handful of those as well. Bolen’s method for documenting an environment is less “point and shoot” and more “bury and wait.”

Untitled (Cern, 7.20.12), 2012, archival pigment print, flora form site. 44.5 in x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery.

Below the Swiss landscape, the scientists at CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – are smashing together particles within the Large Hadron Collider near the speed of light. While in Geneva, Bolen conducted his own photographic experiments in an attempt to document and reveal the unseeable forces swirling around the test site. In one such experiment, the artist exposed film using the water of Lake Geneva as a lens, creating a series of pictures titled In Lake Geneva, 2012. The images capture the experience of water in motion as undulating bands of color and sediment.

During another trial, Bolen buried film in the ground directly above the LHC. The test resulted in a number of grainy purple and green abstract images that were supposedly generated by residual radioactivity from CERN’s black matter experiments interacting with the film.* As part of a series called 350 Feet Above The Large Hadron Collider (2012), individual images generated from the buried film are affixed with magnets to more conventional photographs of the landscape on top of the LHC. The obscure quality of the abstract pictures is vaguely reminiscent of the low-grade photos of the night sky that conspiracy theorists submit as evidence of UFO’s. Bolen’s pseudo-scientific process has a similar accuracy in that film is a relatively crude barometer for identifying what objects may or may not be floating above the LHC.

350 feet above the Large Hadron Collider #1 (matter/anti-matter), 2012, archival pigment print, flora form site. 44.5 in x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery.

It is within this sketchy relationship to verifiable truth that Bolen’s project begins to emerge. It is a well-worn truism that objects within photographs, for all their similarity to reality, are subject to the partisanship of the photographer. Bolen’s process places limitations on that subjectivity by largely taking the photographer’s eye out of the equation, but even that isn’t enough to make truthful representations of what is being signified. Bolen’s pictures – as well as the other bits of information incorporated into his work – function as fragments within an over determined gambit for challenging the tools used to produce knowledge.

But, they also serve as fragments of evidence that illustrate art’s limitations in challenging the production of knowledge. After all, relative to the LHC, the site of the most sophisticated physics experiments in human history, burying film in the dirt isn’t quite the same as splitting atoms. By aping the posture of a scientist in the backyard of a preeminent laboratory, Bolen exposes himself to comparison with genuine physics experts, which is why a straight critique of science and knowledge production seems unlikely. Pictures like the abstractions in 350 Feet Above The Large Hadron Collider exist as splinters of evidence of an event that might have occurred – the interaction between film and radioactivity – as a byproduct of events that have occurred – the collision of particles in the LHC. The images record the presence of invisible forces, even if all they reveal is an undifferentiated static. Placed over top of more conventional pictures of furrowed fields, mountains, and highway streetlights, the audience is privy to only a fractional view of those things too. Bolen’s work, like all art, can only partially explain its own existence.

Untitled (Cern, 7.18.12), 2012, archival pigment print, flora from site 45 in x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery

My criticism of this show, and Bolen’s work in general, is that this theme of obfuscation, this tension between what is hidden and what is revealed goes a bit too far. Nothing in the work itself explains the range of unique processes the artist employs for creating an image. The near dozen pieces on display are presented as quizzical provocations that generate plenty of questions but few points of entry for work this conceptually challenging, even within their titles. In Untitled (CERN 7.18.2012), 2012, a picture of austere geometric buildings is framed within the upper right hand corner of a hazy abstract image consisting of a range of analogous greens. Bits of dry grass have been sprinkled over top of the pictures. The juxtaposition of these elements is again mysterious, each one a sliver of information, though their connection is left to interpretation. Color is the only clue for linking the grass to the green abstraction – which was actually created by taking exposures through blades of grass. Unlike Untitled (CERN 7.20.2012), 2012, a second work from the same series whose subject appears to be grass itself, the building picture embedded in Untitled (CERN 7.18.2012) challenges the feedback loop between green and grass. As in previous pieces, the elements in Untitled (CERN 7.18.2012) suggest a clear indexicality, though without more available pathways as to how that index can be referenced, Bolen’s work, which proposes some new and exciting pathways for photography, is masked by its own obscurity.

Jeremy Bolen: CERN is on view at Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago through March 30, 2012.

*Bolen hypothesizes that these images were created in this way, though he emphasized that this explanation is unverified. Information about the artist’s process here and throughout the review was collected through private email exchanges.