Washing the Blues Away – Unfixed: The Fugitive Image at Transformer Station
Fred and Laura Bidwell’s Transformer Station Museum is a particularly savvy instance of contemporary design, and simultaneously a study of fading history. Originally a streetcar power substation dating from 1924, the well-made and now restored original building is supplemented at the west end by a new minimalist structure of about the same size. It looks intriguingly like one thing hooked up to another – maybe the past plugged into the future.
Unfixed: The Fugitive Image, an exhibit curated by Fred Bidwell, and on view at Transformer Station through April 3, 2016, is a further study of impermanence and the uses of fading histories. Consisting of images produced by twelve contemporary photographers and video artists with a variety of cameras and techniques on surfaces ranging from metal plates to diaphanous, curtain-like swathes of fabric, it’s a conceptually and didactically oriented exhibit about encroaching absence, or the very fleeting nature of presence.
Almost all of the light and images captured therein are “unfixed,” and therefore fleeting. They will evolve with light exposure as the show goes on. At the same time, the show itself “fixes” part of the photographic processes and disappearing light-impressions by placing them in a museum context. Some of the expiring images in the show will enjoy a further half-life in publications and on the internet as documentation of the event, of themselves. The show emphasizes the point that the closest thing to permanence any physical object can enjoy is its persistence as a cultural phenomenon, as a story.
Some of the stories at “Unfixed” are mainly about chemistry–cautionary tales of an inherently fragile medium. But then there are the three large, colorful prints on the southern wall of the annex gallery. Printed in saturated red, blue, yellow, and washed out pink and pale blue, these look at first like water color paintings. The work of New Jersey photographer Paul Shambroom, they’re titled “Poppy,” “Sophie,” and “Winthrop.” What we’re looking at are pigmented inkjet prints on paper, reproducing lost pet flyers that were perhaps originally inkjet prints from the family computer. Almost erased by exposure to the weather in the neighborhoods where Shambroom found them, each comes with a few words, as well as the pet’s name – “will run and disappear,” is all that’s left of one longer description. The pathos of that line, and of the mostly erased form of the lost animal it remembers, sums up the exhibition, not to mention life.
Just as beautiful, and as lost, are the portraits hidden by temperature beneath the blackish sheen on a number of small metal plates. It is by no means cold in the gallery, but still it’s too cold for the actors depicted in these ambrotypes. Montana photographer Brian Ganter used acrylic polymer and thermochromic pigment to print images of faces from adult films, showing actors who died of AIDS-related causes. In the gallery they rest in rows on three wooden shelves, and visitors who want to check out the hidden images put them on a warming surface nearby. The rediscovery of lost intimacy is the theme here, and visitors are also encouraged to touch and rub and even “embrace” the plates, though we aren’t told how to do that. In any case, the slowly emerging portraits are movingly lovely, and well worth experiencing.
Buffalo artist John Opera’s lush blueberry and beet anthotypes and emulsions on stretched linen show human profiles and geometric, double fan-like shapes in edible shades of indigo and dusky rose. They convey a sense of decisive natural movement, seemingly at odds with their abstract formality. The eye soaks into this difference and the lesson taught has something to do with pleasure and its limits. Here, where we might want to embrace the textures of the work–not from sorrow, but because of their seductive poise and delicacy– we know we may not.
Farther down the same wall hang the blue shadows of trees, as if reflected in water, running down on four wide strips of paper that fold and ripple across a couple of feet of gallery floor. Titled “Shadow Falls” it’s the work of Eric William Carroll of Minneapolis. When the exhibit is finished, Carroll has instructed the Transformer Station to “bring the diazotype prints out into the first thunderstorm and let the rain wash the blues away.” Then, “Recycle the paper.”
Carroll also shows a video loop in the Museum’s front gallery, where it is displayed with videos by several other artists. His “Standing Cedars” also consists of shadows of trees, in this case cast on a rolling screen on the back of a moving truck. These shadows are “fixed” only at one remove, by being videotaped as they pass.
To be in love with things as they are, at the height of their power or when little is left but a shadow, is sometimes challenging. Art honors its dead in strange ways, and anyway memory is its own museum, which any blank paper or invisible photograph may open up, if there were ever words or pictures anywhere that moved us. Unfixed is one of those rare exhibitions that are more than the sum of their parts, likely to remind you of days you thought you had forgotten.
Unfixed: The Fugitive Image
January 15 – April 3, 2016
1460 West 29 Street
Cleveland, OH 44113