Surface Tension
Curated by Ariel Shanberg and Akemi Hiatt

Artists: Marisa Baumgartner, Matthew Brandt, Christopher Colville, Megan Flaherty, Joseph Heidecker, Aspen Mays, Klea McKenna, Alison Rossiter, Paul Mpagi Sepuya & Brea Souders

On view: Center for Photography at Woodstock, May 5 - June 24, 2012


As various techniques and processes have been freed within the medium of photography from the responsibility of “depicting images” and “telling stories”, not unlike the revolution that painting experienced over a century ago, photographers are increasingly exploring the ontology of various image-making processes and mining a deeper understanding of our relationship to the medium and its nature as an object.      

Though the medium of photography has long been host to pluralities  as all art forms do, one can increasingly observe a recent incarnation of the form that self-reflexively engages the process and production of image-making. In the spirit of the quality of surface tension   found within the natural world, this exhibition features photo-based works by 11 artists who establish new languages within the medium wherein our notions of the “photographic” are both challenged and expanded.      

Our point of contact with photography today includes news media channels, photo albums, Facebook, Flickr, Google, and advertising.  We experience those images on screens of all sizes, both backlit and projected, plasma, and LED, matte, and glossy. The emotional responses that pictorial photographs trigger can include wonder, horror, sadness, joy, and so many more. Released of the medium’s afore mentioned historic obligations the works assembled in Surface Tension invite viewers to consider the tactile qualities of a photograph and the tension of the physical and/or psychological response they elicit. What happens when photography’s responsibility to tell a story or capture a moment at an event is given up and one instead considers a photograph for its formal and aesthetic values? Often, we may be frustrated by the featured works’ reluctance to share information. Why do they insist on remaining elusive and avoid the appearance of a narrative even when embarking on one, preferring instead that we embrace their own coded language?      


We expect from photographs the communication of a particular event, person, or moment in time and yet none of the images on view here appear to do that. Marisa Baumgartner, Klea McKenna, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Matthew Brandt, Joseph Heidecker, Aspen Mays, Alison Rossiter, and Christopher Colville, evince an interest in the photograph as an object. In these artists’ hands, the photographic print becomes conflated with its subject and can be seen as a fetishized object made dear by the original circumstances of its creation.

These artists move away from the onus of narrative and revert to the handmade, unique, spontaneous image which photography initially seemed so poised against. Through the reorganization of prints, the use of Photoshop, sunlight, lakewater, bodily fluids, a hole puncher, photographic developer, gunpowder, beads, string, and pins, they confront the notion of the supposed “lasting image”, instead leaving records of their own removal or manipulation in surprising and unpredictable ways.              

Baumgartner’s vinyl wall piece, along with McKenna’s folded airplanes and Sepuya’s transplanted studio space, each in their own way, lets the photographic quality of the print be subsumed within the installation itself and enhanced by its site-specific nature, forcing the viewer to engage in unexpected ways with the imagery on view.      

McKenna folded paper airplanes from chromogenic paper and exposed them to the sun at former WWII anti-aircraft lookout posts over the period of one day, from dawn until dusk.

As camera-less photographs exposed directly by the sunlight, the specific conditions of these images can never be replicated, contesting our expectations of a machine-generated replica from a cameras digital sensor of a film negative.

By using the studio as the site of creation for his current work, Sepuya’s process involves constant printing, editing, re-appropriation and recreation. He will move a referent from one piece and incorporates it into another, and as a result this shifting subject-object dynamic points to his interest in using photography as a tool to collect photographs and to explore the relationship to and among art objects.

So too does Brandt fold the physicality of his subjects in with the final product – whether by utilizing the salt from a person’s bodily fluids to instigate a chemical reaction for the photograph to emerge or by allowing the lake water depicted in his images to physically degrade the print.              

Akin to the seemingly perverse action of intentionally destroying a photograph are Heidecker’s piercings of found portraits with needle and thread. Sourcing found images and commonly discarded materials, he creates masks for these strangers, the faces and identities of whom will remain unknown.              

For Mays who nearly obliterates the entire photograph with a hole puncher, the photographic print represents a complex terrain of knowledge and questions. In her approach making sense of the image supersedes knowing what is in the image. Subsequently her gestures connect the invisible space between information and understanding.

Creation Myth

At its birth, photography was an explosive unstable medium. Like a star going super nova, the photograph in its earliest days was momentarily here and then it was gone. With William Henry Fox Talbot’s efforts, the process of “fixing” a photograph was made possible and its role as a document of record, a record of fact, was confirmed. Today some 170 years later, through the employment of chance, instability, and visual tension, we find in the works of Christopher Colville, Alison Rossiter, Matthew Brandt, and Klea McKenna, a reinvigoration of photography’s earliest and now obsolete processes and its defining element – the light sensitive emulsive surface.

Colville’s phosphoric illuminations on gelatin silver paper and Rossiter’s elegiac pools and pours on expired gelatin silver papers often decades old, bringing forth opposing sensibilities of the light sensitive plane; an opposing pairing of slippery (Rossiter) and abrasive textures (Colville). As with Action Painting so exemplified by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, each work resides as a minute experiment and an unveiled universe all at once.       

The materiality of the subject of their photographs is mined by both  Brandt and  McKenna who obliterate any trace of their respective pictorial setting while simultaneously embedding it into the photographic surface. For Brandt it is a biological intersection while McKenna’s exploration uses the contextualization of place in her photographic process.       

In looking inward at the originating gestures of their process, they blend scientific method with artistic practice and evoke an enthusiasm that has long been dormant.                 .

There Is Nothing Here To Look At: Flatness, Illusionary Depth, and Deceptive Descriptions

In encountering the works of Brea Souders, Megan Flaherty, Mark Lyon, and Marisa Baumgartner one experiences a psychological and visual tension rather than a tactile or physical reaction directly evoked by other artists in the exhibition. As collapsed documents that reveal neither depth nor context, they refuse to allow themselves to dwell within the realm of pictorial narrative.

Flaherty trains her eye and camera on the flatness of work surfaces used by art students. The resulting images simultaneously highlight the success and the failure of the documentary photograph. Through the process of re-photographing photographs, Lyon creates seemingly straight forward images of the photographic wallpaper used in clinical environments which emphasize the two-dimensional nature of their subjects and echo the seductive illusion that the wallpaper is meant to simulate.

10463">Using fabric, mirrors, magazine cutouts, and fragmented representations of her own body, Souders composes surreal and dreamlike scenes which oscillate between flatness and illusionary depth. In her efforts to establish a legitimate connection with her personal ancestry, she both utilizes and contradicts the photographs traditional role in preserving memory and connecting lineage. The result is a seductive, yet unyielding surface.

Similarly unyielding in its structure, Baumgartner’s vinyl wall piece interrupts a view onto a courtyard (raising the question of what is the photographer’s vantage point – are we seeing from the inside or the outside?) with wide bands of deleted content, forcing our mind to fill in the blanks. As wall and image fuse, the resulting liminal space serves as a mirror, a window, and a void.  


By subverting conventional  (cultural) expectations of the photographic medium via gestures of abstraction,  deconstruction, and manipulation by the artists’ hand, the print as a three  dimensional object is as much at play as the artists’ methodology in embracing  photography’s transmutable nature. Through the artists’ explorations featured  in Surface Tension, we are witness to  the establishment of an increasingly flexible visual language that would not  have been possible prior to the advent of Digital Photography. In that their  work has allowed for a renewed investigation of aesthetic diction throughout  the medium, can this work be seen as an invitation to embrace a wider  understanding of visual literacy? If the artists in Surface Tension are any indication of the direction that the medium  is heading in, can we imagine what new images will be taken, but also  conceptualized, erased, constructed, altered, soaked, combusted, lit, pierced,  or layered? And if so, what does that say about what our expectations of a  photograph could and should become?

                              -  Ariel Shanberg & Akemi Hiatt