On ViewMiguel Abreu Gallery
May 4 – June 17, 2018
As with much abstract art, you have to look for a while before you start seeing things in Liz Deschenes’s work. The artist’s newest show, exhibited in both locations of Miguel Abreu Gallery, features a series of works comprised of photograms, a medium Deschenes has referred to in interviews as “camera-less photography”: large-format, metallic-looking prints that she creates by exposing photosensitive paper to moonlight, then laboriously developing them through the night—rocking the prints in large bins of chemicals and meticulously drying the large sheets on clothesline. (The process to create a single photogram can take up to 36 hours.)
At the gallery’s Eldridge street location, the photograms are divided into four multi-part pieces, FPS (60), FPS (45), FPS (30), and FPS (15) (all works 2018). The first room features FPS (60), a series of sixty tall, narrow panels that together look like a zoetrope—slits through which to see an animated picture—laid flat against a wall. In each subsequent room, the panels grow wider, though their organization and spacing remains identical throughout. The progression from FPS (60) to FPS (15), the last and “slowest” of the works (which, as its title reflects, only includes fifteen panels), feels perhaps obviously linear: The panels grow in width as the number of frames in the work decrease. But there is a recursive rhythm and relationship between the works, too—one that subverts the straight sense of progression between rooms.
The series pays direct homage to the 19th-century scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, a physiologist who, like his more famous contemporary Eadweard Muybridge, produced black-and-white photographs to study bodies in motion. (His camera could only capture sixty frames per second, hence the starting point of FPS (60) for the show.) But where Marey studied time by photographing its effects on subjects—showing, for instance, the progressive wing movements of a bird in flight—Deschenes uses photography to study time as a physical entity. Similar to the way a tree’s rings can point to how long the tree has lived, and to changes in its environment, such as damage wrought by drought or fire, or periods of exponential growth, Deschenes’s photograms act as a record of the material conditions of their creation. The photograms take on different hues, ranging from deep, purplish blues to warm, silvery greys, depending on how clear the night sky was while the prints were exposed. They also possess unique textures owing to the specific irregularities of how the silver gelatin is spread on their surfaces, marks of Deschenes’s own physical handiwork. The prints act as both a tool to measure light, movement, and other environmental factors that surrounded their creation, and as sum products of these elements.
Deschenes’s approach is rigorous and deeply cerebral, and occasionally, the prints are at risk of being overshadowed by the intellectual weight of their titles, their techniques, and the philosophical traditions she engages with. Facing these pieces can feel like trying to solve an equation composed entirely of unknown variables, and the prints can seem intractable. But reducing Deschenes’s work to its process misses its embodied, more elemental qualities. Though the artist is interested in the question of how to quantify time, the main aim of Rates (Frames per Second) is not to inform viewers about the specific atmospheric or environmental conditions that produced each print. At their core, the photograms are rather a reflection on how time is felt, and each panel contains its own particular imprint of time, and the specific weight that time can hold in space.
The exhibition continues at the gallery’s second location, on Orchard Street, displaying a suite of eight photograms—titled FPF #1 through FPF #8, acronyms for “frame per foot”—cut in long, horizontal panels, and arranged in diptychs across the walls. Each photogram has been exposed for the length of time that a human foot hits the ground in a single step, with the speed or frequency changing slightly piece to piece depending on the walker’s gait and pace. Beyond their horizontal arrangement, these images depart in tone from the contemplative pieces at Eldridge Street. Whereas the former serve as meditations on time as a fundamental element of nature, the Orchard Street photograms feel more sinister and more human, lacking in the sense of grand-scale cosmos that pervades the Eldridge Street series. The panels here are placed at varying heights around eye level, like one-way mirrors in an interrogation room, and are arranged on three contiguous walls in the gallery’s small space. Surrounding the viewer in a man-made (and sometimes, dystopian) recursive loop, the photograms seem to watch us, panopticon-like, instead of the other way around.
In a 2016 interview with Deschenes in ArtNews, critic Alex Greenberger noted that “ordinary viewers” might not pick up on the technical complexity of her work. “I set up the conditions,” she responded. “People can either participate or not.” And she’s right. Regardless of whether we understand the laws of physics that explain gravity, the movement of the planet, or time itself, we still exist on this earth with them. Similarly, the prints in this exhibition will endure, oxidizing over time in the gallery’s natural light, and in so doing, retain the imprint of our presence with them. Deschenes’s photograms find their strength not in didacticism—explaining how time works, or how the prints themselves work—but rather in their material properties, the way they shape time into a physical presence.
Millie Christie-Dervaux is a writer, photographer, and editor based in New York.