The Return to Reason

Review

The Return to Reason

By Danica Willard Sachs February 5, 2015

The Return to Reason, on view at Gallery Wendi Norris, takes its title from Man Ray’s 1923 film, Le Retour à la Raison. In the three-minute film, Man Ray translates his signature photograms into moving images, making familiar objects like nails and pins anew by placing them directly onto sheets of film. These alternate with shots of a geometric mobile and its shadow, the spinning lights on a carousel, and a slowly revolving woman’s torso. Like Man Ray’s frenetic experiment, the five artists selected by curator Allie Haeusslein for The Return to Reason also manipulate photographic processes to create wondrous explorations of form.

The front gallery of the exhibition features the work of two of these artists, Chloe Sells and Lorenzo Vitturi. Sells creates one-of-a-kind topographic pastel-hued photographs of the Rocky Mountains by layering color and texture on negatives in the darkroom. Four of these are installed together in a pinwheel shape, a kaleidoscope of variations on the stony mountain faces. Across from these is a more visually striking work, Katoyissiksi (2014), which depicts a forested landscape and its reflection immediately below. Unframed and tacked onto the wall, Sells’s image fades into an ombre wash of cyan, magenta, and blue, the literal pigment elements of the chromogenic print.

Vitturi’s photographs and sculptural installations dominate this front space, but aside from formal composition, his work is the outlier of the exhibition. Sourcing his materials from the Ridley Road Market in Dalston—a diverse working class neighborhood in London—Vitturi’s vivid yellows, reds, and oranges evoke the cacophony of the market that caters to African, Caribbean, and Asian immigrants. Using yams and squashes, pigments, and images of the market-goers, he constructs and photographs elaborate assemblages. Vitturi explains that he promptly dismantles the arrangements to echo the destructive forces of gentrification visible throughout the neighborhood. But the resulting photos are strikingly formal and commercial in their aesthetic, possessing few visual indicators of the rich political critique he ascribes to them.

Awkwardly positioned in a transitional space between the front and back galleries is a selection of four chromogenic prints by Yamini Nayar. The location is a shame since this salon-style grouping of intimate photos is some of the most compelling work of the show. Nayar pieces together wood, cardboard, fabric remnants, and found images into angular architectural sculptures. The artist then zooms in on the resulting sculptures, creating disorienting photographs like Gion (2014) whose individual elements are difficult to discern. Part of the enchantment of Le Retour à la Raison is in Man Ray’s ability to manipulate everyday objects into the unfamiliar. Nayar achieves a similar level of allure in her transformation of wood and found photographs into unrecognizable forms.

Stephen Gill. Talking to Ants, 2009–12; pigment archival paper print, image 40 x 40 in., paper 44 x 44 in., edition of 5 plus 2 AP. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.

Stephen Gill and Hannah Whitaker’s plays on the photogram in the gallery’s back room more directly engage with Man Ray’s film. Looking at Gill’s large-scale square photographs is like looking at a lab slide in order to see the outside world. For these images, from the series Talking to Ants (2009–12), Gill sourced objects, seeds, plant clippings, and insects from the East London neighborhood where he took the photos, placing them directly in the body of his camera to create what he calls in-camera photograms. In the image here, dandelion seeds obscure a street view with nondescript buildings. The graphic black seed tendrils are gestural, almost painterly superimpositions on the human-made world behind them.

Hannah Whitaker similarly makes interventions in the camera itself, inserting hand-cut screens between the negative and the lens to create her fragmented portraits and landscapes. In Trapezoid Portrait (2014), a photo of a woman in black against a pink backdrop echoes cubist portraits with angular black bars rendering the woman’s visage barely recognizable.

The Return to Reason makes the case that photographic manipulation is still ripe territory for contemporary photographers to explore, even though it’s one over which Man Ray’s legacy still looms large. However, in a moment where the commonplace assumption is that photographs are digitally manipulated, the exhibition shines in its success at reminding viewers that wonder can still be found in the analog realm of the darkroom, or even in the camera itself. 

The Return to Reason is on view at Gallery Wendi Norris, in

San Francisco

, through February 28, 2015.

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