Best of 2013 – With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs at Romer Young

Regular contributor Randall Miller selected With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs for today’s edition of Daily Serving’s Best of 2013. Of his selection, Miller says, “Right now it feels like there is a sea change going on in photography. This past year, I noticed quite a few photographers who are exploring really thought-provoking conceptual territory, while pushing the formal boundaries of the medium in exciting ways. In her essay, Patricia Maloney writes, ‘The notion of the photograph has been largely displaced by that of the image. Images are origin-less: endlessly reproducible and malleable, their content easily manipulated and re-presented.’ This idea perfectly sums up the type of incredibly inventive photographic explorations I have also witnessed in Chicago. It’s been my experience that some of the most interesting art of the past year has been in photography. Ms. Maloney does a fantastic job of dissecting what photography is up to.” This review was originally published on July 24, 2013.

With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs, installation view, Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco, 2013. Courtesy of Romer Young Gallery

With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs, currently on view at Romer Young Gallery, includes work by San Francisco artists C. Wright Daniel, Pablo Guardiola, Jonathan Runcio, and Emma Spertus; the Los Angeles–based John Pearson; and New York–based artists Deric Carner and Letha Wilson. The press release notes as precedent curator Peter C. Bunnell’s Photography into Sculpture exhibition, mounted in 1970 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.[1] Like Photography into Sculpture, With Cinder Blocks includes works that emphasize the imagined qualities of a photograph—specifically tactility and spatiality—by crafting sculptural or dimensional objects that incorporate photographic processes and imagery. Bunnell describes this process: “The maker of a photograph takes subjects—things—as he finds them and, with the selectivity necessary to determine their significance, manipulates them into an expression of his sensibilities so that they may constitute a revelation.”[2] The sensibilities that come to the fore in the works at Romer Young suggest a preoccupation with transformation, phenomenology, and materiality.

The notion of the photograph has been largely displaced by that of the image. Images are origin-less: endlessly reproducible and malleable, their content easily manipulated and re-presented. With Cinder Blocks explores the contemporary parlance by which photography reestablishes its physical parameters. It begins with process-driven explorations of exposure and gesture in which the image’s generative action is synchronous to its subject. Examples of this are Daniel’s silver gelatin prints, Untitled (Portrait) and Untitled (Profile Portrait) (all works 2013 except where noted), and Pearson’s Untitled (No. 2), a wall-hung cyanotype on silk and cotton fabric. To make his works, Daniel presses his face into the photographic paper, exposes, and then flattens the paper so that it records the creases and folds as shadows and peaks. Alternatively, Pearson draped his treated fabric on the desert floor; one sees the traces of dust or sand across the surface but also the rocks that held the edges down for the duration of the exposure. In an e-mail to gallery owner Joey Piziali, Pearson notes that while “photographs always look AT something, these cyanotypes are more an attempt to record being IN something.”[3] Both Daniel and Pearson depend on the direct contact of objects with photosensitized material to create records of their actions.

Jonathan Runcio. Model 3, 2012; steel, primer, concrete, and screenprint, 49 x 33 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco

Pearson’s cyanotype also highlights a contradiction that prevails in the exhibition and is noted in its title: the spatial presence of the sculptural objects is undermined by the photographic impulse to flatten. The white traces marking the place where rocks held down the fabric’s edges conjure the vision of it laid on the ground and compete with its fluid draping; I had a strong urge to reorient it from wall to floor. Nearby is Corner by Spertus, an ink-jet print mounted on plywood that depicts the actual corner between the two works. But Corner hovers between image and installation; the sculpture’s right angles abut the wall like a two-page spread of an open book. The contradictory impulse is most evident, though, in Runcio’s concrete-and-steel sculpture located at the front of the gallery. Model 3 (2012) is a wire armature of sharp angles and strict proportions supporting a concrete beam that slices through it; on one face of the beam is a barely discernible image screen-printed in bright yellow. Despite the architectural lexicon that defines its form—and which obtusely references the Case Study Houses that serve as its source material—the screenprint firmly orients the sculpture with a frontal position; one has to see it head-on to absorb the image.

Deric Carner. Kylix, 2013; pigment print on brushed aluminum, unique; 15 x 12 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco

In other words, in each of these works the materiality of the form calls into account the subject of the image and vice versa. Or more precisely, the material demands to be reckoned with as the artist “fuses the literal or symbolic component of the photographic image with a specific form,” as Bunnell notes.[4] For example, Satyr and Kylix, Carner’s pigment print collages of images taken from the antiquities collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rely upon the seamlessness between the image’s original gray background and the brushed aluminum on which they are mounted to craft both an illusion of depth and a logic of seeing the disrupted and reassembled object. Similarly, in Flaming Gorge Concrete Tondo, by Wilson, the deep fissures and folds molded into the concrete disc create both a rhythmic tension and a tangible sense of place for the image it bears of the stratified Wyoming canyon of the title. Both artists displace their subjects from context or orientation but re-embed them in a physical form that suggests an elapse of time and space and action; their origins are reinvented rather than translated.

Letha Wilson. Flaming Gorge Concrete Tondo, 2013; concrete, C-print emulsion transfer; 11 1/2  x 11 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco

In this sense, they bear affinity to the least sculptural work in the room, Guardiola’s untitled assemblage in which a photograph of two green bottles is hung adjacent to a small shelf on which stands one bottle filled with the shards of another. It immediately recalls numerous conceptual precedents, and its inclusion in With Cinder Blocks functions as a linchpin for the multiple dialogues unfolding in the show. One produces a photograph through a framing mechanism as well as a recording gesture. In each of the included works, that frame is not one we peer into but one we construct from process, material, and positioning and that enables us to be present with the subject rather than simply looking at it.

With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs is on view at Romer Young Gallery through July 27, 2013.

[1] Photography into Sculpture was also re-created in 2011 by L.A. gallery Cherry and Martin as part of the Getty Foundation’s citywide Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions.

[2] Peter Bunnell, Photography into Sculpture, exhibition wall label (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970), np.

[3] From email exchange with Joey Piziali, shared with author on July 8, 2013.

[4] Bunnell, ibid.