GUEST POST BY HEIDI NORTON
As a photography student of the mid/late 90′s, Barbara Kasten was of great significance to me. I lost track of her during the first decade of the millennium, as the contemporaries of the Becher’s school (Gursky, Ruff, Struth) dominated the art market with their dry, representational Deadpan Photography. Now, as an educator 11 years later, I relish in Kasten’s renaissance. Abstraction is transcendental to me, but above all, I see Kasten as a pioneer of contemporary relevance.
Most people know her as photographer, but Barbara Kasten is an artist. Photography is a material to her, the camera’s use- very calculated and intentional. She treats it with equal significance to the rest of her materials–mesh, plexi, screen, mirror, glass, and light. Her influences are vast and span many decades: Irwin’s light and space movement of the late 60′s; Judd’s studies and use of modern industrial material; Post-Minimalism, and its tendencies toward performance; Process art; Site-Specific art; and Abstraction of the 40′s (Moholy Nagy), 90′s, and present. She is presently celebrating her first solo show in Chicago at Tony Wight gallery, Ineluctable, which runs through October 22nd.
Barbara and I sit down and talk art–mostly me picking her mind. But flattered I am, as she is inquisitive about my work as well. See below!
H: Material became important to you very early on in your career. You were trained as a sculpture and a fibers artist. As a fibers instructor, you used fiberglass screen as a teaching tool to model 3d forms. Talk about your transition from fiberglass as a 3-D sculpting tool to its appearance in your first Cyanotype, Untitled 13, 1974. When and how was the camera introduced?
My first photographic works were photograms. When I discovered the industrial screen as a way to create 3D weaving maquettes, I also tried creating a 2D illusionistic rendition in the form of a photogram. That was in 1974, and I still use the same material today in the Studio Constructs. In the process of arranging the photograms. I liked the way that shadows were captured in negative shapes. I was also making life size arrangements using packing boxes and other geometric forms I built for that purpose. At that time, Polaroid was a new color photographic medium; so when I was offered some 8×10 Polaroid film, I learned how to use my first camera, an 8×10 view camera.
H: Speaking of the camera, let’s talk about the relationship between the image created, the materials (light, plexi, screen), and the exhibited object (the print or projection). When we spoke, you talked about the “several stages of development before the image is where it should be”. Please explain this. Can you talk about the integral relationship between the construction/sculpture and how it is mediated through the camera? A minimalist like Robert Morris might have said that there is a “dematerialization of the object via the process of it being photographed.” Do you see the camera and photographic print as more, less, or equal in relevance to the process and materials?
B: Process has been the core of all of my work- whether it was the sculptural fiber pieces I did in Poland while on a Fulbright, the photograms in the early 70′s or the most recent Studio Constructs and video work. The shadow- and the light that causes it- has been my conceptual grounding. I am not interested in the object itself but how it serves as the means of recording light and shadow. The photograph becomes the object when the light is merged with form and shadow on a 2d surface. It’s really the light that completes the action, whether it is in direct contact with light sensitive material or passing thru the lens of a camera. The Studio Constructs go through many configurations before I arrive at the final image….The ‘sculpture’ stays set up in the studio giving me time to live with it and the images I make of it. I can expose many pieces of film before I’m happy with it. Why not digital…many reasons but the main one is that I like a slower process so I can think about the work as I make it.
B: How about you, Heidi? You currently have a show up at Northeastern University, Not to Touch the Earth (Reception this Friday, Oct. 21st, from 6-9). In some of your work, the photograph seems to be a document of your process and in other work, the plants or objects are integral to the piece by their physical inclusion. Talk about these different approaches and how you decide when to create a sculptural piece versus a ‘recording of the piece’ -if you see it that way. If not, how do you think about the role of the plants? Does the photograph play a different role in each of these approaches? Tell me about the importance of the object in your work.
H: All of this work began from the image Whitescape, 2010, where I painted all the objects, including the plants, white by hand. Several weeks later, I was at my studio and noticed that the Dieffenbachia plant I used had begun to grow out of the paint. The painted leaves died and fell off and new life began to sprout from the center. I was intrigued by this–a very pleasant surprise– as painting the plants had left me feeling guilty. The material of the paint was killing, yet at the same time preserving and stimulating growth. I included that same Dieffenbachia plant in the piece Deconstructed Rebirth- my third still life construction made for the camera. In that piece you see the new sprout and the decayed white leaves hanging from the plant. Almost a year later in My Dieffenbachia Plant with Tarp (Protection), the same plant reappears as a whole new plant. Only through the use of the camera as a recording mechanism is one able to see the inclusion of this narrative. With the camera’s ability to freeze time we can see the plants in varying states through life to disparity to death. Evolution of a Plant is a more literal example of this idea. I think of the “New Age Still Life” series as sculptural construction. Like yours, these have several stages of development before they become images or objects on the wall. Higherself and Mango are shot in a studio with a plexi-glass shelving unit that was created to compress the space further within the 2D plane. In the sculptural objects- glass and wax pieces- the plants are pressed to glass or embedded in wax. These materials are also meant to preserve, freeze, and maybe illicit death. The pieces are meant to activate one another; whereas the photographs are fixed- frozen in one state, in the way that Barthes talk about the “Death of an Image”. He sees death implicit in each photograph. He is struck by how the photograph moves you back through time, how you always have the past with you- the photograph as a kind of resurrection. The sculptures will transition in front of your eyes over a span of time based on the nature of the plant. Plants in various states between life and death, wax melting, the color of the plants from green to brown- they are in constant flux.
H: In the Alex Klein essay that accompanied the group show at Shane Campbell in 2010, “Terminus Ante Quem” she compares your process to that of process and earthworks artist, Robert Smithson. She writes, “he famously challenged what he saw as the misperception that art objects function as a kind of culmination or terminus as quem of artistic achievement.” Basically stating that the object supersedes the process, or the process is a building up to the object. People see your works, the final product, a very polished and refined photograph or projection, different than the “documentation” of the 70s. How has being grouped into a movement of photographers whose work is notable for its formal beauty and technical execution changed how the work is interpreted?
B: I happen to like beautiful objects, but beauty alone isn’t enough. Some investigations of beauty can bring out the underpinnings of a structure or idea or process that doesn’t possess that same kind of beauty as the surface. However, I think that my process is important to the understanding of the work which ultimately becomes an object…. a beautiful object. The traditional photographic process is different than mine. I carry on a continual dialogue with the subject, changing each step along the way, much like a painter might do. The process is intense and intimate and can include aspects of performance, documentation and sculpture.
H: You mentioned you are reading Donald Judd’s essay on the “specificity of objects” and the discussion of the “under developed rectangle”. Please explain it’s relevance to your work. We talked about using light on reflective surface to break or reconstruct space within your work and that reduction is the abstraction. Talk more about this.
B: I was in a show at Ballroom Marfa this year and visiting the Chinati Foundation re-sparked my interest in Judd. Just to witness his immersion into the simple architecture of a small western town and how it became an extension of his vision and art. The barracks, containing row after row of polished, reflective boxes illuminated by the Texas sun, was an incredible experience of landscape and geometry merging through the medium of the sun. Judd is straightforward and yet incredibly complex. Its a position that I hope to develop more in my work and thinking.
H: Architecture within the constructed space and the architecture of the gallery seem integral to the work and installation. Please discuss the distinction between phenomenological space and imagined space, and how unambiguous, or understandable for that matter, the difference is between the two experiences.
B: An example of how I like to incorporate architecture is in the installation of ‘Ineluctable’. The three 11×14 silver gelatin prints are positioned so as to include the corner when the viewer looks towards the work. Upon close observation, one becomes aware that there is a corner in each of the pieces that reinforces and establishes the importance of the architectural element in situ. The video ‘Corner’ also plays with the identity of generic structural architecture and light projection that alters its dimensionality.
B: What about the space and environments you create in the gallery’s space? Do you think of your work as environmental installations? For instance the inclusion of architectural pedestals as in the piece, Michael 2011, shown in Jason Foumberg’s September 2011 Frieze review, or the collaborative piece with Karsten Lund, presenting shelves of books that were focused on plant life in “Not to See the Sun” exhibit at Ebersmoore last April?
H: I am interested in creating an atmosphere or environment in all of my spaces- the gallery, the studio, my apartment. When making work, I like to assume the personality of an avid plant collector, a botanist- my studio is a hybrid of herbarium and art studio. I speak mantras to my plants. There is dirt, roots, wax, film and photographs everywhere. I am a creator and nurturer of things and sometimes these things have difficulty co-existing in the same space—precious archival pigment prints shot with 4×5 transparency film made on expensive baryta inkjet paper do not mingle well with dirt, wax and resin. But I like this mix- taking something precious like a photographic print or plant and submerging it into hot wax–pushing the integrity of the material outside of it’s natural limits. Michael, the piece you mentioned, is maybe a good example of when these two polarities collide—to me, it’s both photographic and sculptural. When I created the display stands for the piece, I intended for them to not look like pedestals that reference high art. I wanted them to assume some anonymous person’s makeshift constructions. “After the Fires of a Little Sun”, the installation of books and mirror, are to reference a mantle and book collection. Not necessarily my own collection (though all the books are/have been used for personal research and relate in some abstract way to my work), but maybe someone whose interests vary from botany, to color theory, to a 1970s back-to-the-land manual. The project grafts new imagery and typewritten text directly onto the pages of existing books. The artist and writer’s responses become merged with the research materials, producing an unconventional artist’s monograph/zine, fueled by the symbiotic combination of three elements: the original texts, the writer’s typewritten thoughts, and the artist’s wide-ranging visuals. The effect of leafing through this material (now collected in one volume) is a bit like stumbling upon some anonymous person’s avid research materials — perhaps a mad botanist with a flair for detours into the histories of art and counter-culture.
Not to Touch the Earth is on view until October 28th at Northeastern Illinois. Opening Reception, October 2nd, 6-9pm.
Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. She lives and works in Chicago. Norton has presented solo exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco. Group exhibitions include How Do I Look at Monique Meloche Gallery, The World as Text at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, Snapshot at Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, and the Knitting Factory in New York. Norton was published in My Green City (Gestalten) in 2011 and her spring show at Not to See the Sun, EbersMoore was reviewed in Frieze, September 2011. She currently is collaborating with writer Claudine Ise in a seasonal column for Bad At Sports called Mantras for Plants. Norton is represented by EBERSMOORE gallery in Chicago. She is faculty in the photography department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Next up in our Mantras for Plants series, artist Heidi Norton and I interview Cris Merino, Isa Merino and Carol Montpart, the directorial team behind The Plant Journal, a biannual magazine based in Barcelona, Spain (The journal’s editor is Cris Merino, and its art directors/graphic designers are Isa Merino and Carol Montpart). The Plant Journal’s editorial statement describes the publication as follows:
Besides providing botanical contents in a simple, personal and cozy way, The Plant Journal offers to plant lovers a new look on greenery by featuring the works of creative people who also love plants. As a curious observer of ordinary plants and other greenery, the magazine presents a monographic on a specific plant and brings together photographers, illustrators, designers, musicians, writers and visual artists, both established and emerging, from all over the world, to share with The Plant Journal their perceptions and experiences around plants.
We love that their focus is simply on “plants,” yet that subject alone can take them in an infinite number of cultural directions. Also note that Plant Journal’s Spring/Summer 2011 issue features the mind-blowing photo-collages of Chicago artist Stephen Eichhorn! You can subscribe to this print-only journal by going here. We want to thank Cris, Isa, and Carol for answering our questions!
Heidi Norton: How was The Plant Journal conceived? Who are your readers? What types of people, places, things are featured?
Editors: We suppose everything began when we realized that every time we had to make a gift, it was a plant. And our friends do the same with us. Plants arrive to your home, you care of them and you establish quite a special relationship with them. Furthermore, as we love publications, especially in paper, we thought that it will be a beautiful idea to create a magazine completely dedicated to plants, since we didn’t find any that gave plants the relevance and the approach we had in mind.
The magazine is addressed to people more or less like us, who enjoy plants even if they seem incapable of keeping them alive, people who feel inspired by greenery and whose creativity is open to establishing connections with plants. That’s why in The Plant Journal you can find photographers, illustrators, designers, chefs, etc. Probably they are also our readers. On the other hand, since plants spread out whenever they want to without asking anyone’s permission, we look for them wherever they are, in their own natural habitat, but also in our cities, homes, offices, etc.
Claudine Ise: Yes, I really like how you use the subject of plants as a jumping off point to talk about a range of subjects — music, art, film, and other areas of culture. The essay that looked at how houseplants were arranged in some of Eric Rohmer’s films as a way to investigate his approach to formalism is a great example of this. Can you talk about how you solicit articles for the journal – what kinds of essays hold appeal?
Eds: We were thinking about the connections between cinema and plants, so we looked for Lope Serrano (from Canada productions www.lawebdecanada.com). He writes articles for a cultural magazine from Barcelona, and we knew about his vast visual and cinematographic knowledge. And it was Lope himself, during a chat, who suggested the connection between the ethical and aesthetic formalism of many of Rohmer’s films and the plants that appear in some scenes. As we admire Rohmer’s films, we loved this approach. The result is a very academic and didactic article that completely fits with the aim of the magazine. But in general, there’s a little bit of everything in the articles. There are some that are proposed by its authors and others cases when we explain a general idea to the writer and then, after exchanging ideas, we reach an agreement. In the case of sections such as “My plants by” or the interviews, our work is about finding the right person. That’s why it is very important for us to have a wide network of contributors who share our interests.
HN: The introduction that you use to promote the journal states, “providing botanical contents in a simple, personal and cozy way.” Can you explain what you mean by “cozy”? I ask because, there is something “cozy” about plants, an unpretentiousness that makes places, objects, spaces, and materials more accessible.
Eds: With ‘cozy’ we want to emphasize and vindicate the affection for plants. At least in Barcelona, people don’t use plants as much as we would like in the way that you explain. So we think it’s not always obvious that plants are cozy by nature. You sometimes have to stop and think about it, and that was one of the reasons to create The Plant Journal. We had an example of this a few days ago. We created an installation with plants and macramé for the magazine launch party in Otrascosas de Villarosàs gallery in Barcelona. The space also contains the meeting room for an important advertisement agency, with its typical big table and nothing else. Well, yesterday Marc (who is responsible for the space) told us that since plants were there, people want to have the meetings next to them, and they even asked him to leave them there. That’s nice, because plants have made that room a better place. And nobody there thought about it until now! That’s why we thought we must emphasize the coziness of plants.
CI: Your journal’s content isn’t available online. Do you think it’s important, conceptually or otherwise, that the journal remain a paper publication that is circulated “on the streets,” as opposed to via cyberspace/the internet?
Eds: As we love publications, we like to go to a bookshop or a newsstand, choose a book or a magazine and then read and enjoy it calmly in your place. You can get it back whenever you want to, you can collect them, write on them, cut them out, etc. It might be fetishism or nostalgia, but we think that the experience of paper is more accessible, relaxed and intimate. It is obvious that the Internet offers a lot of opportunities for a publication (starting with the production costs, always more expensive in paper), but we never doubt it: the magazine is printed in paper, an object that in addition is beautiful. We will create some different contents for our site, but they will be more casual and fast consuming contents specifically created for the Internet. For us, it is priceless: the Sunday aperitif with the daily papers and that feeling is something a screen will never give you, no matter what the possibilities that an iPad can give to you.
HN: What things are inspiring you today, right now?
Eds: We are now very interested in rediscovering traditions that seem to be ignored because of the high-speed way of life and the anxiousness for new stuff. That means we get inspired by and enjoy cooking for friends, going on a trip looking for mushrooms in the countryside, caring for our little gardens, knitting macrame, etc. All kinds of domestic, simple and everyday activities that make your life better. As music, cinema, arts and books also do.
Eric May is a founder of Roots & Culture, a nonprofit gallery space in Chicago that features stellar group and two-person shows throughout the year. May is also the longtime chef at Ox-Bow, a 95 year old summer school/retreat for artists located in Saugatuck, MI. (You can read more about Ox-Bow on Art21 blog here). It’s not completely uncommon to see houseplants in a contemporary art gallery, but the front-window “garden” at Roots & Culture is truly special – the first time I visited R&C several years ago, it was the foyer that really captured my fancy. It’s earthy, beautiful, completely unpretentious, and somehow those plants seem to encapsulate everything that Roots & Culture and its approach to exhibiting art (and creating community around art exhibition) is all about. Heidi Norton and I talked to Eric about how he came to found R&C, his passion for sustainable living, his life at Ox-Bow, and a range of other topics. We’re truly grateful to him for taking the time to talk with us.
Claudine Ise: Tell us about how you found the space that Roots & Culture is in. I’ve always been struck by the fact that although it’s a storefront space, the setup inside is really homey – and in fact, there’s a full kitchen in back, and you have a “garden” in the front, not unlike a home. You transplanted the kitchen from Ox-Bow – why? And what kind of plants are in the front window? They all seem to be thriving there.
Eric May: Initially, I had been shopping around for a space without a clear idea of what I had in mind. Really, I had been growing bored with the Logan Square area where I had lived for seven years and it was time to move. The Noble Square/ East Village area was appealing. It was affordable and seemed much more central. So I started looking in that area for a few months. My dad actually first came across the space at 1034 Milwaukee and let me know that it was a potentially interesting space to house many activities. I was looking for a place that would be multi- functional, a live/work type of environment but not exclusively an exhibition space. I was for sure captivated by the idea of art cohabitating with daily life which I had come to experience through apartment galleries and the like in the Chicago scene in the early to mid 2000’s. I was also working as a curator at another nonprofit gallery, so when we found the storefront it seemed like a natural choice to open as a gallery. And it had ample studio space in the basement and a modest loft that we built out as an apartment.
I really lucked out I think, because I had enough space to build out a clean, professional gallery. I remember consulting John Corbett about my initial plans to open an apartment gallery and he said, “just make sure that there aren’t stacks of pizza boxes everywhere”.
Also I was really impressed by spaces like duchess and 65GRAND, which I felt were very successfully exhibiting work in crisp, clean spaces while still feeling welcoming and homey. So a certain level of professionalism was always in mind as we designed the space. That said, I deeply believed in the idea that by creating an exhibition space which had a domestic, holistic feel, it could slow down the viewing process- a space in which an audience can linger and exchange. Offering food at our events seemed like a great way to encourage this type of viewing experience, since I have a background in cooking. As for the stove- Ox-Bow had begun renovating and rebuilding certain buildings on campus in late 2005, which included the kitchen. I asked them if I could keep the old stove (which I had learned to cook on), at the time having no idea what to do with it. My friends were kind enough to let me store it in their barn on the farm in northwest Indiana and fortunately a year later I had a space to move it into. The party is always in the kitchen, so we designed an ample kitchen as a reception area with the old stove as the focal point.
The hearth, a source of warmth and nourishment, is an essential nucleus of a happy, healthy home and I thought this would be a wonderful attribute of the space. I like to see Roots & Culture as a bigger project, an experiment in ecology both social, domestic, and also biological, more on the latter to follow.
Heidi Norton: My parents spent their 20′s living off the land- building cabins, raising animals, crops and subsequently it has influenced my art and life extensively in a variety of ways. You have been committed to Ox-Bow for many years, can you talk about how a space like Ox-Bow and it’s relationship to nature and land has influence your philosophies around art and food? What is Ox-Bow to you?
EM: Ox-Bow is my favorite place, my second home, and a place that has taught me a lot in my adult life. I grew up in places with access to nature and was super interested in plants and animals as a child. In fact I spent most of my summers in the Western Michigan area, so the Saugatuck area was very familiar and a landscape that felt native to me. Ox-Bow’s land is a treasure of untouched natural beauty in the Midwest and has a rich and diverse ecosystem. I have encountered many a breathtaking natural experience in my years- the mating dance of the ichneumon wasp, finding giant moths on my cabin, stumbling across a family of barred owl chicks, spotting a red fox darting across the meadow, foraging from a dead tree in full bloom with chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms. A few of my early co-workers in the kitchen grew up in rural areas, so they proved to be a wealth of knowledge in the old ways and taught me many old timey skills such as canning, pickling, homebrewing, slaughtering chickens, and gardening. We have an ethos of wasting as little as possible, composting everything, using scraps for stocks, etc. The area is a fecund and robust agricultural region and we have access to an amazing bounty of naturally raised produce. Its funny because the mantra of seasonal, local, farm-to-table eating has become so fashionable in the city and it’s the kind of philosophy that has existed in the Ox-Bow kitchen for decades. And our producers, until recently, did not have to advertise the virtues of their products because they have all along just adhered to the old ways, generations of sustainable farm practices. So clearly living and working in the heart of the country has had a huge influence on my approach to cuisine. There is a more meta influence that Ox-Bow has had upon my broader practice and I think its pretty simple- in this experience which is closer to the land, I have learned a sensitivity toward relationships between ourselves, our environment, and the other beings that populate it. Equally central to this is the closeness of the community and shared experience, which is focused 24/7 on the pursuit of creative endeavors. The proximity in which we work and live requires a sensitivity to others and a sense of collectivity. These are core values to what I do.
CI: Do you have a garden at home? If so, what’s in it?
EM: You might call our horticultural dabblings at R & C “gardens”. I like to keep a diversity of plants and animals around me, so I have always kept pets and house plants. The foyer garden at the gallery began as a collection of my houseplants. It’s probably the efforts of Mike Wolf, who has been a resident of the space for four years, that nudged the houseplant zone into what you might call a garden. Over the years, he’s started fruit trees up there. Green onions grow pretty successfully. I was really impressed when he pulled up some voluptuous bulbs of ginger out of one of the pots recently. He has also ran a compost program in the basement and always has seeds germinating down there. Last year I built out an unused room in the basement into a garden and contemplative space that I call the “Grow Room.” I successfully grew lettuces, radishes, and herbs, but ultimately felt like the produce was lacking in a robust flavor that I reckon is developed from natural sunlight. The electric bills also did not exactly make the endeavor a sustainable practice in terms of energy produced versus energy consumed. I also have grown mushrooms down there, which require far less light, and now I primarily grow exotic mushrooms down there these days- shitakes, blue and pearl oysters, and lion’s mane mushrooms.
HN: Claudine and I recently stumbled upon this restaurant at the Crocker Museum for Art in downtown Sacramento, opened by a “philosopher”, chef and artist, Jonathon Keats. Keats says, “this is not a restaurant for humans to eat plants; rather, it is an exercise in creating a dining experience for the plants themselves, with a menu of enhanced sunlight that is designed to appeal to their sophisticated sensory apparatus, providing them with not only energy, but also a satisfying, piquant, and delightful experience.” In your opinion, what does this “solar gastronomy” offer to human mankind and to plant/botanical mankind? What are your views on this dining by the electromagnetic spectrum philosophy? Gimmick or cool?
EM: This “plant restaurant” project looks pretty silly to me. I like the idea of revering plants and drawing focus to their life cycle. But to call it a restaurant and to frame the serving of light to organisms that do not perceive pleasure to cuisine seems a bit of a stretch. And this is coming from someone who has hosted dinner parties for wild animals. In my work, though, I am highlighting the differences in consumptive habits of people to animals and unpacking the anthropomorphizing of animals. I’m having a hard time locating intention for Keats’ framing this work as cuisine. In my grow room project I have been interested in the co-presence of consumption and production of horticulture. That said, an aspect of this work, the idea of granting plants their own time and space to consume is kind of cool. Maybe it would be more complicated for an audience if they were invited to dine upon plants as the plants “dine” upon light. I like his cookbook format though, recipes are a great discursive tool for work like this, a strategy I’ve used in some of my own writing. It kind of harkens back to the old school conceptualists and their lists of directives for recreating their work.
CI: To me, the name ‘Roots and Culture’ has a kind of retro-hippy vibe that doesn’t scream out “Contemporary Art shown here!” What does the name of your space mean to you?
EM: The name, I get this question every once in awhile. Retro- hippy vibe works for me! The name comes from my love of reggae music, Roots & Culture was a movement in Jamaican music during the early to late seventies, which is aligned with the Rastafarian movement and Garveyism. Of course it’s more than a little clumsy to reference such a specific historical moment that my only real connection to is through cultural fandom. More generally though, the music represented a shift from more base, popular subject matter to socially conscious meaning. I like that as a metaphor for our activities. I like the slipperiness of signifiers too, and I like the openness of the name. It is very clear in a way, but also layered with other referents, like to botanical and fungal ideas. This kind of broad way to talk about ecology is at the core of my practices and I couldn’t really articulate that when I first opened the space, but have now come to as my practice has expanded.
Artist Heidi Norton and I share an abiding interest in all things plants. During several conversations we had while I was profiling her for Art Ltd., we often talked about the relationship between art and gardening. Heidi incorporates living plant matter directly into her sculptures and has used various types of house plants in her New Age Still Life photographs, along with the more recent series of images shown in her show Not To See the Sun at ebersmoore last month. Heidi and I have continued to talk about the relationship of art, plants, and gardening, and as the next iteration of what has become an ongoing exchange, we’ve decided to conduct a series of interviews with other artists to further explore those connections. Voila: Mantras for Plants, a new, irregularly appearing series of posts.
First up, Heidi talks with Chicago photographer John Opera about his practice and his use of the Anthotype printing process. Opera recently exhibited his photographs at Andrew Rafacz in Chicago and at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, MO. He’ll be exhibiting his work in a group show titled “To Tell The Truth” at Monya Rowe Gallery in New York from June 17th-July 29, as well as in another group show at Statler Waldorf Gallery in Los Angeles that opens June 17th.
Heidi Norton: What is an Anthotype? Can you explain the process? How did you come to find it and how do you feel it fits into your practice?
John Opera: The Anthotype is a printing process that was invented by Sir John Herschel around 1832, five years after the first known photograph. It represents a moment right at the beginning of photography as a medium. The discovery of the process was very much a part of the initial experiments that led up to photography, as it was eventually known in the 19th century, both in technical terms and in metaphoric terms as well.
In addition to his photographic research, Herschel was also an accomplished botanist and researched the chemical properties of light. His experiments often crossed disciplines. That’s how the Anthotype came about—it was an attempt to connect fixing a photographic image to photosynthesis. Herschel discovered that he could make a rudimentary print emulsion using pigments extracted from plant material. He made his prints by treating paper with the plant-based emulsion and pressing a negative tightly against the paper under a sheet of glass. The prints are then exposed during the height of summer when the sun is very intense. The printing process can require anywhere from a week to three weeks in direct sunlight.
For my Anthotypes, I used beets, blueberries, pokeberries, chokeberries and several varieties of lilies. It’s pre-photography. I was really interested in that notion. There is a strange connectivity that the process has to the natural world. It feels alchemical to me. I collected some of the plants at sites where I made landscape photos in the past, specifically the pokeberries, so I guess you could say that some of the images have a connection to my past work, or at least they are part of a continuum.
The images in the prints are of drawings that I made in a glass bottom tray device that I designed which allows me to expose directly onto large format film without a camera. There was no lens used in making the images. They are essentially contact prints of ink in water. For me, the prints point toward the fundamental principles of image formation in photography. They are also still-images about liquid and its connection to the medium.
HN: One of things that fascinate me is the relevance of light in this work. All photography is reliant on light, but the way light is utilized in these pieces is extreme. The “ink drawings” must be created in complete darkness. I imagine you sitting in a dark closet, dropping ink into a tray of liquid, flashing light to expose the latent image. The second process is actually making the contact print. Like you mentioned, at times the exposures can be up to three weeks in direct sun. Can you comment on this duality?
JO: Honestly, I’ve never consciously thought about that connection, but it is a really interesting one for sure. A duality in the process like that is probably a good thing. The pictures are about a balance in a lot of respects I guess—formally, conceptually. The negatives are made in a traditional darkroom setting, while the printing process takes place under very different circumstances. It can take up to 120 hours in direct sunlight to break the emulsion down enough to make a photograph. The image of the drawing is captured on film in less than a second. I see what you mean by “extremes.”
During the printing process, I have to pay attention to the weather and monitor the prints daily. They can only be made during the summer months when the sun is a its highest point in the sky. I suppose there is an interesting parallel between how the prints come into the world and witnessing plants in a garden do the same. I’m reminded of Jeff Wall’s image Poppies in a Garden, which is in the Art Institute’s collection. For me, that image is about the potential universe contained within the poppy. It’s also an image that draws connection to the latency you are talking about in photography. There is a delay between the time a photograph is made and when you see the negative or print. This is what happens to the gardener in the garden as well. I suppose my Anthotypes are somewhere around there in that they are about something provisional. I like to think that their point is also that they break from the observed world, like a hallucination.
HN: Speaking of “hallucination.” This break from the “observed” world, we can call a “secondary” experience or even a transcendence from the lived experience. Maholy Nagy uses of abstraction of light coupled with technology, exemplifies the idealistic and utopian thinking of a specific era. He coined the term “the New Vision” for his belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not. Is this a relevant conversation today?
JO: I think that every image is a secondary experience to an extent. I feel like photography has reached such a point of self-consciousness that we can agree that any kind of photograph, whether it’s a documentary image or a photogram, occupies a secondary, or abstract position.
At the same time though, I think what you’re getting at is a transcendence of observed experience. There is only so much that a lens-based image can describe, right? I guess that it’s the reason I have periodically revisited abstraction over the past 5 years or so. Despite their straightforward manner, I have always thought of my landscape pictures as being about a topography of interiority. I couldn’t quite get there though. I think I have always used abstraction to express what I couldn’t do with a straight photograph.
HN: The colors and images of the anthotypes have a “West Coast”/LA appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because I know they were made in the summer and we hung out a lot during the time of their creation so in some ways they resonant a certain level of nostalgia. But there is a history of west coast makers that use “west coast” light to influence their practices and works. I definitely make different types of work in the summer–perhaps due to the changes in color palette, a different energy, geographic location, longer days… Besides the fact that the sun is the strongest in the summer, I want to know: Does the sun and warmth solicit certain types of making practices or “types” of art for you? Is there such thing as summer art? If these were made in the winter, would they look aesthetically different?
JO: I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “summer art.” I thought about the Anthotypes all winter long! Although, making the work has definitely made me more aware of the changing of the seasons and of the Sun’s position and path across the sky. I feel like the process of producing the Anthotypes has really been a process of aligning myself with the seasonal cycle, probably a lot like a gardener or farmer would have to do.
HN: So I will ask you the same question I asked Barbara Kasten because it is relevant with your work (and I’d like to compare your answers). I feel we are experiencing a similar scientific/technological revolution in relation to how we capture and perceive light and color. How do you feel digital manipulation has changed the production, consumption and criticism of abstract photography? Do you feel that the abstractions inherent in the medium, particularly evident in your work, are enhanced or obscured by the further abstraction embodied in the act of digital capture/rendering and/or manipulation? Do you feel it’s important to explain this to people or ensure they know the works are not “manipulated”?
JO: Things are definitely changing, but I won’t say if it’s good or bad. For me it’s just happening. Digital is definitely erasing certain glitches and characteristics of analog photography, but it’s also creating its own set of peculiarities too. Digital is actually very close to surpassing film in most respects. What will eventually remain is the nostalgia for certain arbitrary properties—film grain, solarization, fogging, etc.
Actually, it’s not really important to me that people know how the images were fixed to the prints, although that is usually the first question people ask me. So how are these made? I could have captured the images on a digital device—actually that would have been a lot easier. There would have been fewer steps. The important thing is that they recorded fleeting compositions—whether that was achieved digitally or traditionally is not important. The fact is that I had to scan the film in order to produce larger printing negatives, so there actually was a digital step to this process. See, now we’re getting too hung up on process.
I’m not sure how abstraction is affected by the digital shift. Abstraction in photography is like abstraction in painting—its meaning shifts according to context—always. The way I use abstraction is different than how it functions in Barbara’s work and vice versa.
Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Her work has been exhibited all over Chicago in venues such as Monique Meloche Gallery, Dominican University, Northern Illinois University Gallery, and Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Nationally and internationally, Norton’s has been exhibited at the Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Knitting Factory in New York, as well as in Los Angeles, London, and Valenica, Spain. Norton was published in My Green City by Gestalten in 2011. This past year she had solo shows in San Francisco at Hungry Man Gallery and ebersmoore in Chicago. Her work will be included in the group show The World as Text at Columbia College Chicago, opening June 16th.
Fri 4/8 –
Work by Ian Pedigo.
65Grand is located at 1369 W. Grand Ave. Reception is from 7-10pm.
Work by Heidi Norton.
EBERSMOORE is located at 213 N Morgan, #3C. Reception is from 6-9pm.
Work by Adam Pendleton.
Shane Campbell Gallery is located at 673 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception is from 6-8pm.
Work by Michelle Blade and Jose Lerma, respectively.
Western Exhibitions is located at 119 N. Peoria St., 2A. Reception is from 5-8pm.
Sun 4/10 -
Work by Mark Booth.
Adds Donna is located at 4223 W Lake St. #422. Reception is from 3-7pm.