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The Joy of C-prints

"102," 2010
Courtesy Mariah Robertson
& Noma Gallery

Mariah Robertson's C-prints at NOMA Gallery are tactile, warped celebrations of the physical process of color photography rooted in the medium's tradition of experimentation. Manipulating the fundamental interactions of light, paper, and dyes through the exposure and chemical processing of photographic paper and film, the artist revels in the range of possibilities afforded through adjustments in saturation and contrast. The results combine clean geometry, liquid color transitions, subtle fades, and traditional imagery within a remarkably unified collage aesthetic. The pieces are titled numerically, in direct opposition to their decidedly unmechanized production.

130 (2010) is a dark field of alternating purples and cold blues bisected with a light red glow. The surface of the print is filled with photograms, which the artist created by laying translucent slices of rocks and minerals directly onto unexposed photo paper as it was introduced to light. This piece updates the photographic experiments by Richard Parry in the 1930s and by Lázsló Moholy-Nagy in the '40s with the ecstatic color found in the work of Robertson's celebrated Brooklyn contemporary Ryan McGinley.


"166", 2010; Courtesy of the Artist and Noma Gallery

166 (2010) shows the positive image of palm trees against a light sky, suggesting that, unlike the photograms, this piece was made with a negative or digital image source. At some key point in the piece's chemical development, the paper or the negative must have been folded in half, creating a loosely symmetrical, Rorschach-shaped gray and turquoise spectre, leaving the image of the trees visible within its haze. The print takes on an overtly psychological reference: the image itself serves as a framework for an expressive process, while the ghost-like quality recalls early black-and-white spiritualist and paranormal photo-manipulations, such as William Hope's debunked ectoplasm photography.

Hanging diagonally, the irregularly shaped 102 (2010) repeats the process colors of cyan, yellow, magenta, and black. The upper portion is broken into a clean, quilt-like or windowpane pattern in which each square is occupied by palm trees. In the bottom of the print, the windowpanes collapse into a chaotic, upended dispersion of process chemicals, with upside-down pour marks echoing the thin tree trunks that run under them. Through repetition and geometry, the tree imagery suggests a textile print that appears deadened and mechanical when compared with Robertson's wild, spontaneous process.

Again, liquid chemical splashes and runs contrast with regimented slatted bars in 83 (2010), though the photogram is unified through Robertson's strategic use of torn edges and repetition. The coloration is at once subtle and stark, relating a dynamic energy within its rigid structure, acting as a possible analogy for Robertson's relationship to C-print photography. Color dyes suspended in an emulsion on paper can only be developed and processed in a finite number of ways. Within this limited range of options, Robertson has found an endless, shifting labyrinth of possibilities to work with. The fading, bleeding, melting, and overlapping marks and patterns she achieves all attest directly to the physicality of the materials at her disposal. Ironically, while celebrating photographic materials, she upends photographic convention, directly manipulating each piece individually and making editions impossible, like a kind of painterly monotype.

The Joy of C-Prints is on view through October 30, 2010 at NOMA Gallery in San Francisco. For more information visit nomagallerysf.com.

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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