From Los Angeles: Falling from Great HeightsApril 22, 2013
Falling from Great Heights, the current exhibition at the Stephen Cohen Gallery, takes its title from a quotation by the astronomer Carl Sagan that addresses the sublime and ineffable nature of the universe: “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”I The three artists in the show, Siri Kaur, John Knuth, and Heather Rasmussen, each convey this sense of awe and wonder when confronted with the unknown and the unknowable. Interestingly, they all employ photography—a medium that is often considered to be objective—to create images that call into question the veracity of what they depict.
Siri Kaur’s selections from her series Half of the Whole (2010–13) align most literally with Sagan’s assertion. The first room of the gallery is hung salon-style with Kaur’s ethereal, abstract photographs that resemble various natural phenomena. Some of the images, which vary in size, contain patches of green, blue, and brown, suggesting views of the Earth from above, while others, in bright pink on white, recall microscopic views of the body’s interior.
In fact they are all images of deep space taken through a high-powered telescope. Kaur has manipulated the colors in the darkroom so that they look like “real” photographs of the cosmos. Even images of space used in science, however, have had their colors adjusted digitally to accentuate certain features that would otherwise be invisible. In altering her photos to mimic images of space that are themselves already altered, Kaur questions the notion that science can objectively represent the universe. These images tell only a fraction of the story; there is far more information that they cannot convey and perhaps that we cannot comprehend. Toward this end, Kaur uses the same source image for certain photographs, adapting it to create different effects through rotation, enlargement, or coloration, raising further questions around authenticity. Kaur’s aptly labeled Darkroom Experiments are gorgeous, though I’m not sure that they would have the same conceptual strength were they separated from the series. Together they present myriad, subtle variations on a theme, but as single works their dubious claims to verisimilitude would be weakened.
John Knuth’s intimate, evocative Polaroid images capture a similar sense of mystery by challenging us to define what we see. He contributes two series—High Harbor and Faded Siren—that alternate around three walls of an interior gallery office; the only drawback to the installation is that viewers wary of breaching the gallery’s inner sanctum will miss his work completely. Knuth photographs survival tools: a gold Mylar emergency blanket tossed on the ocean’s surface for High Harbor and close-ups of an active smoke flare for Faded Siren. The High Harbor images resemble glittering islands as seen from the window of a plane overhead, while the billowing clouds of smoke in Faded Siren appear sculptural, frozen by a bright flash at night. What makes these works particularly captivating is their small scale: viewers may be drawn to the images to better discern their content yet feel apprehensive lest something unexpected emerges from their inky depths. The shift in scale and temperament between the placid, distant forms of High Harbor and Faded Siren’s turbulent, in-your-face plumes contributes to this dynamic push and pull. In an accompanying video, an unseen Knuth sets off orange smoke flares within old desert mining shacks. This action gives the dilapidated buildings a temporary life, as their empty shells are overcome by billowing orange masses. With an economy of means, Knuth achieves a set of striking, and at times mesmerizing, images.
Subscribing to a completely different but no less compelling aesthetic, Heather Rasmussen produces photographs of cut-paper constructions, which recall the work of the artist Thomas Demand. For the past few years, Rasmussen has been collecting aerial images of shipping container accidents, meticulously recreating them using cut and folded cardstock, and photographing them as tableaux. Removed from their original context, they appear simply as arrangements of colored rectangular solids, a formal exploration of shape and color. Rasmussen adds a sense of pathos, however, as the torn and crumpled forms disrupt this dispassionate gesture. She maintains a tension between the child-like innocence of handmade colored blocks and the industrial violence of the original accidents. The macro-size shipping containers are humbled and humanized by their micro reproductions, which are then enlarged, further heightening the contrast.
This exhibition takes the work of three L.A. artists and explores how they represent the unknown, but more than that, it questions the objectivity of photography, which has been located somewhere between art and science since its inception. Kaur, Knuth, and Rasmussen use abstraction to transform images of natural and synthetic phenomena into ones that suggest the supernatural and ineffable, in effect re-imbuing the medium with a sense of discovery. Through manipulation and distortion, they are able to pull back the curtain and provide a glimpse of Sagan’s “greatest of mysteries.”
Falling from Great Heights is on view at Stephen Cohen Gallery, in Los Angeles, through May 11, 2013.