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Ellen CareyShadows & Pulls 2007
Polaroid Pulls & Shadows
Carey creates images that are one-of-a-kind using the Polaroid one-step, peel away process that develops in a mere 60 seconds. It produces a positive along with its negative, Carey shows both, making pictures that are simultaneously photographic and abstract. These artworks she calls "Pulls", her term since 1996 upon its discovery, echoes the physical activity of making these pictures,
The "Pulls" are boldly displayed as color positive prints. Carey’s signature conical looping shapes, reminiscent of moiré patterns, wood grain or photographic Newton rings are seen with their opposites, the negatives or "shadows". Both prints contain rich surfaces. The negatives dry and their patina results from this change. As photographic objects they serve as symbols of their former selves, a "memento mori". Carey signals Talbot’s paper negative (1834) at the dawn of photography and the negative/positive axis that is photography’s foundation. Equal status is given to both prints (the Polaroid negative is usually discarded) and the artist acknowledges this history, underscoring its importance by tacking the "Pulls" to the wall with pushpins. Her installations are visually rich, a visceral experience of synoptic clarity and "in situ" presentation direct from the artist’s hand and the Polaroid studio.
The show’s title references her own short history of the "Pulls" as well as "A Short History of the Shadow", a book written by the art historian Victor I. Stoichita that she researched for her monumental minimalist installation "Mourning Wall" (2000). Her practice emphasizes the history of the shadow in art and photography, as well as the inevitable demise of processes, such as the Polaroid 20 X 24 camera. Carey is keenly aware of her short history with her "Pulls", which falls under her umbrella concept "Photography Degree Zero", her practice since 1996.
I view myself as a 21st century artist, using the tools of her time for aesthetic and conceptual expression. More often than not, the tool in question is the large format Polaroid 20 X 24 camera. This camera, of which there are five in the world, was built over twenty years ago under the sponsorship of the Polaroid Corporation. Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid’s one-step peel away process, gave photography the instant image. Dr. Land’s brilliant contribution to the medium stands alongside that of Daguerre, one of the founding fathers of photography, whose invention/process also produced one-of-a-kind images noted for their crisp clarity and detail. The immediacy of the Polaroid process is especially invigorating to me as an artist. It allows me the opportunity to instantly view the art that I am creating, then make adjustments, and continue working. All of my work with this camera is experimental, technically inventive, and process oriented. This free-wheeling approach gives me the opportunity to be genuinely creative in the Polaroid 20 X 24 studio, preparing each shooting session with drawings, yet allowing for serendipity, chance, and play. The innovation and attention to method in my work reflect photography’s unique combination of being an invention and a process.
I approach photography as picture making rather than picture taking. I am interested, both visually and conceptually, in chaos theory, fractal geometry, and symmetry and asymmetry as found not only in art, but nature (nautilus shell), science (DNA helix), mathematics (the golden mean, the logarithmic spiral), and architecture. Order and randomness both play key roles in the creation of my work, which has affinities to Abstract Expressionism (size, scale, and off-frame space), Surrealism (light, the darkroom, photograms), and Minimalism (material-as-process, seriality, non-representational images, issues of silence). One question frequently asked about my work is How was this picture made? More recently, this has been joined by the question What is this a picture of? With these two questions my art not only confronts photography-as-process (the Polaroid camera is both invention and process) but also challenges the prescribed expectation that photographs depict reality.
Abstraction is well established in painting, but still emergent in photography. In my particular case, abstraction in the last few years has approached Minimalism more and more closely, as my most recent one-person shows in New York and elsewhere bear out. I wish to push the parameters of the photographic medium, both to question the process by which a photograph is made and raise the issue of photographic meaning in the absence from the frame of a recognizable representation. Abstraction in photography is a virtual contradiction in terms, and Minimalism a further oxymoron. It is at the particular intersection where a photograph is devoid of any recognizable image that I wish to concentrate my artistic, intellectual and aesthetic energies. Minimalism remains distinctly underdeveloped in photography, but is well established in contemporary painting and sculpture, with specific affinities between my work and the sculpture of Dan Flavin (color and light), the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin (simplicity and repetition), the conceptual art of Sol LeWitt (geometry and systems), and the sculptural installations of the late Donald Judd (non-art materials and the square). The work of all these artists has a sublime presence and a timeless eloquence that not only challenges ideas about what is and what is not art, but also carries with it spiritual and perceptual overtones that are existentially self-defining. In my own work, this same combination of qualities can be seen in a palette linked with the stained-glass window of my Catholic upbringing that serves as the basis for a rigorous investigation of light, that primary agent responsible for all photography.
Ideas and visual codes that I have used freely in my art practices derive from the discoveries of Benoit Mandelbrot, who developed fractal geometry. I have also used in my own work ideas found in the writings of Rudolf Arnheim, whose basic thesis that art has two structures (the circle and the square) can be seen in connection with my use of the photographic apparatus with its circular lens and rectangular camera body. These conceptual and contextual affinities, along with studying the history of photography and its contemporary practices, have given me the tools to create in a more meaningful way and have underwritten a richer synoptic clarity in the end result.
In 1996, my one-person show at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in SoHo (NYC), Photography Degree Zero, was the first exhibit so show my investigations into Minimalism and photography, of which No. 47 (1995) is one. These photographs show the colors yellow, red, green and blue—images that record pure saturated light as it falls in front of the Polaroid 20 X 24 camera. These colors also represent the four elements: yellow/sun, red/fire, green/earth and blue/sky. This four-panel art work also contains the primary colors in painting; yellow, red and blue, and the primary additive colors in color photography; red, green and blue, In painting with light I re-introduce one of photography’s unique characteristics, that of capturing the magic and beauty of color (light) and give it equal status to that of an image of "something".
Photography Degree Zero is a direct reference to Roland Barthes‘ book, Writing Degree Zero, published in French in 1953 and in English in 1968, with an introduction by Susan Sontag. Barthes offers theoretical meditations on writing, focusing particularly on the dispassionate tone and minimalist style of the French new novel. In related fashion, my work is meant to represent a departure from the picture sign idea of the photograph, as well as from the historical and cultural expectations surrounding the idea that a photograph will describe, document, and narrate such as in the snapshot, landscape, portraiture and photojournalism.
In tandem with my Polaroid 20 X 24 work, which I began in 1983, I have also been making photograms for over a decade, both in black-and-white and color. Over the past several years I have re-discovered the work of the British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), one of the pioneers in photography. Talbot’s system produced an image, say a fern leaf, on chemically treated drawing paper, creating a negative, using sunlight for exposure. The result of this procedure was called sun pictures, or "photogenic drawings". Later it evolved into the calotype or Talbotype processes, which often involved contact printing the negative image to make a positive one, thus introducing the reproduction of prints from an original negative.
I have similarly produced images (in the darkroom) using the photogram technique, a method from the dawn of photography. However, I start out with a positive image, later contact printing it to get a paper negative, thereby reversing Talbot’s original process. Often the negative image is more successful than the positive one, but in this diptych from 1999, both have equal aesthetic value. The paper negatives are striking in their rich, luxurious warm blacks. The positive photogram has a decidedly modern look, with cooler blacks than those of its counterpart. It is in this link to the beginning of photography that my work has a "back to the future" quality, referencing early photograms, especially the "negative" images from Talbot.
My pictures, when taken altogether, are reminiscent of distant galaxies and nebulae taken with a large telescope or the interior microphotographs of tissue, optical nerves and cells. I have created rich fields of marks that are clearly abstract, mysterious and full of ambiguities while paradoxically introducing the gestalt of forms and metaphors. The wonder of photography’s invention and process is revisited here. Years of darkroom experience coupled with knowledge from various fields outside of art inform my re-visitation with critical acumen and aesthetic rigor.
As our culture spins towards the 21st century, camera-based and technological media like photography seem logical and appealing choices for certain artists. Photography‘s protean diversity, its comparatively short history, its technical advances, and the universality of its images all speak to the interests of those artists in addressing issues beyond and outside the rarefied concerns of the art world of former times. It is in this spirit that I have made a conscious decision to work in a medium in which a machine can combine with imagination to redefine notions of truth and beauty at 1/125th of a second.
The vintage photography and collecting market have answered "yes" to photography as a viable art form for over the past 25 years. As the market for vintage material gets scarce and numbers climb to the six figures, it makes sense for institutions and collectors to look at contemporary photographers and artists to continue the aesthetic, intellectual and technical dialogue with which their forebears began in this pioneering field.
The number of galleries devoted to contemporary art/photography has grown enormously over the years, and my generation (Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Barbara Kruger, Sally Mann etc.) has lead the field in breaking down barriers between art and photography. Mid-career lens-based artists and photographers such as myself have paved the way for the upcoming generation, with my work specifically having important links to photography’s past in the work of Talbot and Daguerre. The trajectory of these links must be preserved in related artworks whenever possible, as they reflect not only the photographer’s artistic vision of their time, but photography’s collective importance over time. Thus the vitality and expansion of the language of photography is enriched, and the legacy of Talbot and Daguerre preserved.
Ellen Carey, 2007