Framed as an exhibition of sculptural photography, With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs brings seven contemporary artists into Romer Young Gallery for a minimal show of intriguing constructions. Plotting a course from the 1970s to the present, the show centers on work that capitalizes on the mutability of photographic materials and processes to transcend the flat plane and take on various three-dimensional shapes. The greatest pleasures in the exhibition come from pieces that challenge the viewer's ability to understand their making, and fortunately, most of the works do elicit a cocked head and a "how did they do that?"
The first pieces in the room, a pair of flattened unique silver gelatin prints by C. Wright Daniel, hold all the creases and shadows of their construction. Using cameraless photography, the prints Untitled (Profile Portrait) and Untitled (Portrait) are so flat they almost conceal their own folds. In this instance, the works themselves are a document of their own making, leading smoothly to Pablo Guardiola's work, an untitled photograph and small sculpture. His c-print shows two green-glass bottles on a concrete surface. Next to this, a single glass bottle sits on a shelf, filled with the shards of its former portrait companion.
Pablo GuardiolaOther works in the gallery are more opaque -- literally. John Pearson's cyanotype on fabric is a vibrant rectangle of draped cobalt cloth on the gallery's back wall. A spattering of white spots and the periodic blocks of white around the fabric's edges provide the only clues as to how the work was made. Laying the coated fabric on the desert ground, Pearson allowed the wind and dust to create their own star-like photogram on the silk. The popularity of cyanotypes right now makes it easy to dismiss Pearson's piece as trendy, but I've never seen a cyanotype quite so large and quite so graceful as Untitled II, making it worth a second look.
Jonathan Runcio Untitled (Model 3)Rocks and rock-like concrete tie a number of works in the exhibition together. In the center of the gallery Jonathan Runcio's Untitled (Model 3) casts a geometric shadow on the floor. Its complex steelwork supports an angled block of screenprinted concrete. The thinness of the metal contrasting with the weight of the concrete, Runcio's piece is perfectly balanced. The screenprinted image (the show's obligatory photographic tie in) could be a plan for the sculpture it now adorns. The materials further enforce this interpretation; they are more likely to be seen on a construction site than in a photography department.
New York-based Letha Wilson also makes creative use of concrete. Her three wall pieces, all muted images of rocky nature, present photographic images undulating across the surface of what look like shallow core samples. Black Foliage Concrete Bend, Bonita Cove Concrete Tondo, and Flaming Gorge Concrete Tondo blend c-prints emulsions with curing concrete, sealing the photograph to the surface with meticulous timing. The sculptures are small -- only 11.5 inches in diameter -- and extremely self-contained. In fact, the works in With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs are all fairly hermetic. But shared materials and overt themes of doubling (again a handy photographic tie-in) lightly link the works to each other within the gallery.
Daniel's two prints attempt to capture the shape of a face in two views; Guardiola's work presents a before and an after, a melding of two objects into one. Across the room, Emma Spertus' piece Corner picks up on the duplication trend. The ink jet print, attached to a strangely-shaped plywood mount, replicates the gallery's nearby corner in photographic form. Positioned in the middle of the wall and running out on the floor, the sculpture is not fully illusionistic, but a slight shrinking of the corner's power outlet to a smaller scale renders the image model-like, though still completely banal.
Deric Carner, Gordon IThe final work in the show, Deric Carner's Gordon I, shows actor Gordon Scott posed as Tarzan with spear in hand. The print on brushed metal has an attractive oil-slick rainbow quality, but I'm unsure if it has enough physical presence to qualify as "sculptural form."
A few extra pieces in the back storage room of the gallery are juicy bonuses to the show. Three of Daniel's prints, matte black paper passed through a drum dryer, show the strange patterns of heat on their surface in the form of enigmatic spots of high gloss. An additional Runcio Diazo blueprint and two Carner pieces of collaged images from the Met are well worth asking after at the front desk.
While I'm not sure With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs convinced me of a specific trend in contemporary art, it did introduce me to a number of out-of-town names and highlight them in context with local artists, a fantastic outcome for any summer group show. The most thrilling parts of the exhibition come from the material experiments and alternative methods at play within the familiar time-honored traditions of photography. Such boundary-pushing and genre melding can only lead to better conversations and more thought-provoking works as these artists continue to produce and exhibit.
With Cinder Blocks We Flatten Our Photographs is on view at Romer Young Gallery in San Francisco through July 27, 2013. For more information, visit romeryounggallery.com.