Sun Works is a small two-person exhibition of just two pieces in which the sun plays "silent collaborator." Understated, the show strives for simplicity and directness, leaving a large amount of both literal and figurative space for the viewer to consider. But beyond their subject matter, Sarah Charlesworth's conceptual series and Chris McCaw's experimental photographs have little in common, making their pairing thought-provoking, but arbitrary.
The first half of the gallery showcases all 29 prints in Charlesworth's Arc of Total Eclipse, February 26, 1979. Part of her Modern History series, the prints were made by photographing the front page of local newspapers in the path of a solar eclipse. With all content masked out except for the mastheads and images of the obscured sun, Charlesworth's series highlights editorial decision-making, as well as the relative importance of the event to that community.
Selections from Arc of Total Eclipse, February 26, 1979, Sarah Charlesworth.
The limited amount of information contained on each print makes the eccentric details all the more meaningful. In several cases, images of the eclipse sit above the masthead, in others, they dominate nearly the entire front page. Many mastheads include weather forecasts of rain -- for how many was this printed image their only view of the eclipse? The organizing principle of Sun Works is off-point for these prints: the real collaborators are the newspaper editors and photographers who took the original images, not the sun.
Standing in the center of the first gallery, a break in the walls -- and Charlesworth's prints -- creates a perfect window for McCaw's Sunburned GSP #488 (Sunset/sunrise, Galbraith Lake, Alaska), a work in which nothing is obscured, a contrast to the blank spaces in Charlesworth's newspapers. For this tetraptych tableau, McCaw loaded vintage gelatin silver paper directly into his view-camera, allowing the sun to solarize its own path over Galbraith Lake onto the paper. Obliquely documenting the intense heat and light of the sun, the scorch mark is most intriguing when a mountain peak momentarily blocks its lazy arc across the sky.
Sunburned GSP #488 (Sunset/sunrise, Galbraith Lake, Alaska), Chris McCaw.
Unfortunately, stepping in the back gallery for a closer look at McCaw's prints eliminates the cohesiveness shared when viewed together with Charlesworth's. Tightly hung, McCaw's four prints are dwarfed by the cavernous gallery space. This back room feels underhung and underwhelming -- not up to the cosmic grandiosity of what the work attempts to depict.
The writing surrounding Sun Works makes a point of emphasizing the generational gap between Charlesworth (born 1947) and McCaw (born 1971). While Arc of Total Eclipse is "a signature work by a major Conceptual artist," McCaw "connects the very origins of photography with the DIY culture of his generation." Positioning McCaw's work as an accidental discovery in which the sun is the main author diminishes it needlessly. The two pieces work well together when considering how we can only view the sun indirectly -- either through special lenses, as with an eclipse, or through a process such as McCaw's photographic setup. In this sense, it is a pleasure to spend time with these two works, but the imbalance is disconcerting. Though it would ruin the neat one-to-one ratio in the exhibition, it would be nice to see more of McCaw's sunburn pieces at the Berkeley Art Museum. Thankfully, a simultaneous exhibition of McCaw's photographs at Steven Wirtz Gallery, on view till December 22, 2011, fulfills that desire.
Sun Works is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through May 6, 2012. For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.