1.6 / Review


By Jessica Brier January 13, 2010

"Morphology," Catherine Wagner's current solo exhibition at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, showcases four large-scale photographic works—a sampling of the results of her 2008 residency at the California Academy of Sciences.

The exhibition, consisting of five large framed Lambda prints, takes the scientific classification and presentation of species as its focus, drawing tantalizing but ultimately underdeveloped connections between science and visual art. Each work's title refers to the specific genus of flora or fauna pictured, giving the exhibition more an air of pseudo-science than a complex investigation of its subject. This interest in categorization harkens back to Wagner's work mining controlled environments such as art museum collections and laboratories and re-presenting her findings as deadpan documentation. It is clear that the works in "Morphology" are just excerpts from a much larger documentation project; a sense of the larger context of the investigation might have lent more meaning to the individual pictures.

"Morphology" operates under a similar ethos of re-presentation but misses the mark both conceptually and aesthetically. Wagner’s previous projects have a strong relationship to the tradition of scientific documentation and 1960s conceptual photography. She is known for her use of conceptual strategies to test the very notion of “documentation.” Her work pokes and prods at this supposedly straightforward, unbiased mode of representation to illustrate the slippery relationship between fact and fiction. Although Wagner has demonstrated a sustained interest in the relationship between art and science throughout her career, she doesn’t seem to bring the same critical eye to the presentation of ferns and dragonflies that we have come to expect from previous work.

According to the gallery's press release: "In these works, [plants and insects] have been decontextualized as specimens and recontextualized as formal, calligraphic gestures that are interrelated and form a new visual language that references our connection to the landscape." The problem seems to be that the objects she has photographed are decontextualized but not successfully recontextualized. It feels as though Wagner has begun this investigation but not quite reached its conclusion. Recontextualization is hinted at in the physical arrangement of objects: glue and plastic ties, holding the specimens down to their white backgrounds, are visible in the pictures. These little visual blips are at first disorienting, until I realize that the specimens are not resting on a flat horizontal surface but adhered to a vertical panel.

Odonata I, 2009; Lambda print, 48 x 60. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco.

Odonata I and II, 2009; Lambda prints, each 48 x 60. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco.

They act as clues to our orientation as observers, suddenly situating us in new relation to the specimens. We must be either looking from below or from the side, as they are presented in photographs, and I can’t help but wonder why. I can only assume that Wagner’s attention to orientation was calculated, but not successfully enough to enlighten the viewer to its purpose.

Each of the images in "Morphology" holds a visual tension between the seemingly random arrangement of specimens for scientific examination and the always-deliberate and meticulous composition of contemporary photography. The comparison of scientific and photographic processes is taken further by the bright white backgrounds of each image, recalling the glowing light table on which a photographer would place a strip of negatives for inspection. However, the massive scale of these works and the minute detail of each specimen against a stark white background suggest precision but unfortunately don't quite deliver. Up close, I’m disappointed to find that many of the specimens are out of focus, and I lose intrigue in my inability to truly examine Wagner’s subjects.

 Arguably the most successful pictures, Odonatta I and Odonatta II (2009), which comprise a massive diptych measuring 10 feet across, create a palpable tension between the natural and built worlds. A smattering of dragonflies and damselflies in sharp focus are arranged in patterns reminiscent of both bird migration and fighter jet formations, calling attention to the way humans borrow from the natural world to adapt to it, often in painfully ironic ways. This work has a more clear relationship with the notion of “calligraphic gestures,” in the way it mimics certain natural and man-made formations. My mind makes a number of associations with very little information—the simple arrangements of insect bodies—making me wish there was more to see. The sparsity of Wagner’s presentation therefore presents a central concern of the medium: when presented with straight-ahead subject matter in photography, our brains will immediately look for the bigger picture, the new context. If we fail to find it, is it a failure on the part of the photographer or just a reminder to try to clear our heads, impossible as that may seem, and just look?

"Morphology" is on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco through January 30, 2010. 

Jessica Brier is a curator and writer based in San Francisco, working in the Photography Department at SFMOMA. Her writing has appeared in art on paper, Curating Now, Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert's Death and Taxes: Fourth Quarterly ReportGolden Guns; and Stretcher. She holds a BA from NYU and an MA in Curatorial Practice from CCA.

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