Liz Deschenes: Registration
Miguel Abreu Gallery April 6 – May 20, 2007
I always make this joke that if a fly were to land on a Robert Ryman painting, the dramatic effect would be almost Wagnerian. Dave Hickey ascribes a similar phenomenon to Andy Warhol’s short film, Haircut No 1, when the protagonist lights up a cigarette after being shorn—an otherwise meaningless gesture that in this case explodes with all the pop of the last ten minutes of a Michael Bay movie. A piece of art invariably positions itself somewhere along a dramatic spectrum, calibrating expectations to its self-enclosed narrative and taking the viewer for a ride on its own terms.
I’ve always had a special appreciation for works of art that show the restraint to operate on the subdued end of things. In the case of Liz Deschenes’ exhibition at Miguel Abreu, “subdued” hardly describes the first impression made by the seven works on the wall. Each of her “Moire” prints is 60” x 46” framed, and, from a distance, barely distinguishable from the others. These five prints are made by exposing film to natural light filtered through a perforated scrim, which gives them the appearance of ultra-concrete, super-flat monochromes. Deschenes uses these discrete circles as a base layer onto which a second exposure is overlaid; the slightest shift of registration during this process produces a surprisingly dramatic array of effects.
As one moves toward the work, the monochromes begin to separate into black and white dots. In turn, one’s eye naturally bites at the gestalt produced by the speckled field and begins to pull images from the abstraction. Disturbances created by the moiré patterns inevitably read as hazy Benday landscapes; ghostly accidental shapes floating in a hazy gray atmosphere. At a really close range, the obscured landscape gives way to a nausea-inducing field of vibrating black-and-white dots. The degree and range of activity from such simple means are astounding: some parts vibrate, some move to the left and some stand still. Moiré patterns in art aren’t anything new. They were explored in the ’60s by kinetic artists such as Jesus Rafael Soto and Victor Vasarely; however, unlike her predecessors, Deschenes’ work stumbles across this retinal punchline as a byproduct of an ongoing investigation of photographic mechanics and processes, which, in the digital age, are becoming lost arts.
In the thrall of such optically hypnotic prints, the viewer is unavoidably drawn closer to escape the enveloping effect of the vibrating visual field. These seemingly straightforward pieces are sirens, beckoning viewers deeper inside a slowly unfolding story; a story that ultimately leads from minimal to maximal and from mechanical to handmade. For all the two-tone surprises of the moiré pieces, they unpack a final colorful twist. Although the nature of the process polarizes dark and light, producing an overall black-and-white image, the prints are developed on color film, which results in a slight tonal variation that reads in the dearth as lush color. The penumbras limning the perimeters of the near-perfect circles add both formal depth and further insight into the photographic process that created the work. The color is barely there, but like a fly on a white painting, it lunges forward.
There are two brilliant red dye-transfers included in the show that also come to life as Deschenes’ process of registration reveals itself, but the real standouts are the five moiré pieces. The temptation to embellish a surface for cheap thrills is ever-present; Deschenes shows that opening with skillful restraint and unveiling an image over time can be more effective than milking the limits of sensation.