Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A look into Martha Casanave's world

Casanave, untitled, 2012
Martha's been using a camera for fifty years - for teaching, for portraiture, for staged photography, for essays on artists and writers of the former Soviet Union, the list goes on.  Another equally important part of her work during this period has involved specialized cameras: pinholes, large format cameras, nineteenth century contraptions, wherever her heart directs her.  To my mind Martha's finest book remains the amazing pinhole odyssey entitled Explorations Along an Imaginary Coastline, which is essential reading. 

But at times she dispenses with the camera altogether and creates pictures which readers of this blog are familiar with, if not practitioners themselves: lumens, glassprints (Martha sticks by the term cliché-verre and we'll follow her on this), and chemigrams.  Today we want to look at a group of her cliché-verres from 2012, but first we must set the stage.

Casanave, untitled, 2012

Casanave, untitled, 2012
Let's step back and see how we got here.  W. H. Fox Talbot, around 1835, made a few drawings by setting botanical materials on glass plates.  He wanted to see if he could print these images onto paper sensitized with a coating of silver salts.  He could.  Since sunlight was the driving force, he called them 'photogenic drawings' or drawings arising from light.  A few months after he got around to announcing this feat, in 1839, three Englishmen, apparently etchers or engravers, applied for a patent on a process to make a 'glass print' by drawing with etching needles on sooted glass and printing it on sensitized paper.  It was an improvement on Talbot and a legal tussle may have ensued over the rights, we don't know for sure.  What we do know is that the process was never commercialized, and quietly died.  The three Englishmen returned to their etching.

Across the Channel, a Frenchman by the name of Adalbert Cuvelier, an amateur painter and skilled photographer (photography was booming by the 1850s), invented basically the same process in 1853 and called it cliché-verre (who knew it was a zombie process?)  He lived in a rural area and had a friend nearby who was a painter too and loved to paint landscapes.  His name was Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.  Corot wanted to learn this new technology, seeing in it a way to do quick sketches from nature which later could be printed, then recast as paintings: a transfer process basically.  Cuvelier was happy to show it to him, and he showed it as well to Corot's circle of painter and printmaker friends - Millet, Delacroix, Rousseau and others - who had begun leaving Paris for the more aesthetically pleasing countryside and forests of Barbizon, south of Arras where Cuvelier lived.  Soon the forests were teeming with artists carrying around sooted glass plates, scouting for scenic views, idyllic streams, stoic peasants.  We are in the heyday of cliché-verre, roughly from 1860 to 1875.  Incredibly, many of these glass plates survive today and can still be contact-printed.
Corot, Souvenir d'Ostie, cliché-verre, 1855

Casanave, untitled, 2012
A rapid succession of technological breakthroughs brought this period to a close, along with possibly - we speculate - a certain ennui of the forests and a yearning for the café life of Paris.  First, gelatin dry-plate photography was invented in 1871 to supplant the older, cumbersome, wet-plate process; George Eastman established a company to exploit it, and it now became much easier to photograph a landscape instead of painstakingly drawing it on a plate.  Cameras themselves became smaller, cheaper and simpler.  Eastman introduced photographic film, and in 1888 a small portable camera, the Kodak; a more revolutionary technology for the general public was not seen until Steve Jobs' iPhone more than a century later.  Cliché-verres by now, amazingly, were soon a relic.

Casanave, untitled, 2012
For the next hundred years and merging with our times, most of the history of cliché-verre has been one of scarcely more than flirtation and curiosity, associated occasionally with hot-button names like Klee, Picasso, Man Ray etc, but with no enduring commitment from anyone.  Each dabbled, did one or two, and moved on.  Roland Barthes discusses some of the reasons in his book The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977-78) but I warn you if you go there it's buried deeply.  However, as in all things there are exceptions.  I have my favorites among the modern or modernish cliché-verre artists and I return to their work often: I find it passionate and overlooked.  The list must include Hajek-Halke and Chargesheimer in postwar Germany and Aris Koutroulis and Abelardo Morell in America, the latter two both discussed elsewhere on this blog.  (Two other Americans often cited, Henry Holmes Smith and Frederick Sommer, I will pass over in strict silence.)

And then there is Martha Casanave.

What moving, mysterious, wonderful pictures these are.  They wake you up, you who've been sleepwalking through the galleries of contemporary photography.  They lie well beyond representation, even beyond structure, but not beyond poetry.  They are calm, profound, and intricately rational like a microscope slide of a human cell, but a cell no one has ever seen before.  How does she manage to pull it off?

She switches from poetry to prose to help us understand.  "I smoke pieces of glass with a candle.  You can do varying densities of smoke, and varying shapes, depending on how you hold the glass.  Then I drop alcohol on it.  I sometimes use just water.  No predicting how it will look of course.  If I don't like it, I just wash it off and start again.  I don't save any of these 'negatives'.  I make 8x10" prints in the darkroom.  I scan some, and make big digital prints."

Casanave, untitled, 2012
Corot would have understood her, if you take out the digital.  The two of them could have smoked their glass over the same candle.

Her website is www.marthacasanave.com


Sunday, February 8, 2015

From zombie prints to Lazarus prints

Turnbull, untitled chemigram with additions #1, 2011-15

We've talked a lot about living prints - lumens, pinholes, mordançages, chemigrams - but let's talk now about death and about prints that no longer breathe.

What are dead prints?  We've all seen them, we'd be lying to say we haven't.  A dead print is one that is damaged beyond repair, either by something the artist did herself in creating it - an experiment gone awry, an idea that didn't pan out, a flat-out screw-up - or by an extrinsic act.  Take your pick of these: maybe someone spilled coffee on it, or ripped it accidentally, or got it caught in a door, or they drove a spike through it.  Whatever the case, these prints are off life support.  In the trade (you may have encountered this), dead prints are also known as zombie prints, because in art nothing ever really dies, though there is little argument there are times when it should.

This raises the question, what do you do with them?  You can't get rid of them, after all they're zombies.  They will pile up and crowd around you and haunt you forever.  They will never let you forget them.  To provide an answer, Rich Turnbull has invoked the notion of the Lazarus print, a sort of antidote to the zombie print.  The Lazarus print, like its namesake, is a kind of do-over, a second chance, or what I believe they call in golf a mulligan.  Here's how it works.  You take the zombie, lay it on the table, stare real hard at it, and then start drawing on it.  Simple as that.  You are breathing life into it as you draw.  Soon, the print stirs and awakens.  It lives.

Turnbull, untitled chemigram with additions #2, 2011-15
There are several tips to keep in mind.  One is don't get too serious about what you're doing.  Normally a staid, thoughtful individual, Rich proves that point unequivocably in untitled chemigram with additions #2If you make a mistake, well, it's already dead anyway.  And you'll be surprised that the more relaxed you are in applying ink or paint, the zanier your moves, then the more life you find you're pumping into it, because life really responds to zany.  Here Rich's piece has been quickly revivified and would now look commanding framed on a wall.  Back in 2011 it didn't look so good.

Another tip, don't limit yourself to drawing.  Consider painting, spraying, tearing, collaging, fouling, burning or any activity that comes to mind: nothing is illegal, feel free as a child.  Each activity is as powerful as another in restoring life.  It was after four days that Jesus, in the Book of John, brought Lazarus back from the dead.  He used faith.  Rich used marker pens after four years.  Each is effective.

The critical reader may have noticed that the same errant tool that 'accidentally' led to the zombification of the print earlier may equally, and paradoxically, lead to its restoration as a Lazarus today.  This is true, and is one of the great paradoxes of art.  

Turnbull, untitled chemigram with additions #3, 2010-15
Another may ask, is this the same thing as hybrid art, where different artistic approaches are combined in a single work?  Well, yes and no.  Often it's a matter of intention versus nonchalance or desperation.  The results may look the same but it's really all about how you get there, and what you learn along the way.  Here's a well-known Saul Steinberg photograph/drawing hybrid recently shown at the Pace Gallery in New York:

Steinberg, Girl in Bathtub, 1949
Clearly, this was conceived in advance as a hybrid, and in fact it's from this that it derives all its charm: neither photo nor drawing can stand on its own.  On the other hand, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, here's a Pierre Cordier chemigram that plays with ambiguous possibilities and suggestiveness.  Are those dark lines around the major shapes laid down after the fact, with a non-chemigramic tool such as a brush or pen?  Very hard to tell.

Cordier, 6/7/81 III, Homage to Robert Capa, 1981

To qualify properly as a Lazarus print a work must have been judged dead by its creator before the Lazarus intervention, and neither the Steinberg nor the Cordier come close to that - happily for us.  Yes, there is an element of devil-may-care desperation in the Lazarus project.  When it succeeds, though, it is all the more wonderful for itTurnbull's recent trio of works clinches the case.