History’s ShadowMay 3, 2011
Walking into David Maisel’s exhibition History’s Shadow, at Haines Gallery, the viewer might not recognize the work as X-ray portraits of antiquities. Surprisingly, the textures, tones and effects created by this process are more enticing than clinical. Through the process of x-raying historical art objects in the collection of the Getty and of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Maisel proffers a particular view of history, one that is cloudy and delicate, yet revealing in unexpected ways.
The first image a viewer sees is GM3 (2010), the view through a statue of a horse.1 In lieu of a traditional portrait of the exterior, of the textured hide or hair of the mane, Maisel’s X-ray delivers complete depth, from the thin, membranous outside to the structural elements and the final hollow core. The external façade is rejected in favor of a more complicated view, and here is where this work takes its strength. The animal in GM3 is simultaneously compressed and expanded; although the expected surface details are missing, more of the animal is ultimately shown: the empty barrel of the chest, the ovals of ribs, and cascading ribbons of the sculpted mane.
This horse is simultaneously frozen in time and animated by Maisel’s process. The head twists to the right, grimacing with an open mouth frozen in a whinny. The neck arches away and to the side, almost backward. Closer inspection reveals whorls, clouds, and spots on the image, like dye unfurling in water; the animal is both revealed and obscured in the places where the hot light fades to darkness against an inky black background.
In the X-ray, the horse appears struck by lightning—flooded with light, as if captured more by circumstance than by meticulous process. Maisel’s expressive power often lies in the paradox that the photograph creates: it announces some details and conceals others, resting on the border between ephemeral and concrete.
Other works in the show reveal less but still seduce, especially in relative position to one another. For example, AV4 (2010) is an X-ray of a handled pitcher with a spout. But the photograph discloses cracks and mends in the handle and a central fault line across the belly of the vessel. There are drips of glaze visible near the bottom of the jug and mysterious tracks along the neck. The X-ray depicts a ghost of the actual object, revealing a sense of the pitcher’s true thinness and fragility. Next to this work is GM12 (2010), a turbaned or crowned figure of a woman. In contrast to the pitcher, her figure has a depth and a solidity that belies her demurely downcast eyes. Where the light of the image gives way to darkness, there is a blur that implies movement. The sense of heaviness dissolves to wisps at her edge, reinforcing the impression that the figure was caught in motion.
In producing this work, Maisel seems to be asking some very big questions: What does it mean to see into the center of something? What can a clay statue reveal about the human condition? Each work in the exhibition has its own particular answer, from impressionistic to concrete, durable to fragile, but no single image can claim the authority of a final reply. On the whole, the work’s ephemerality demonstrates that history’s shadow may be less important than history’s light: a dim luster that tends to illuminate sensations and feelings much more clearly than facts.
History's Shadow is on view at Haines Gallery, in San Francisco, through June 4, 2011.