(Yossi Milo and Radius Books, 2018)
Meghann Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes capture the materiality of water: water meeting the shoreline across the coast; water as it falls from the sky. Her images ripple, bend, crease, and wave, conveying the tactility, energy, and force of this natural body. Riepenhoff’s creative process combines intricate staging with chance occurrences. She places chemically treated pages out in the rain, submerges them in the ocean, and drapes them over trees, letting the water activate the chemicals. For work made only through the mixing of cyanotype chemicals and water, the images are strikingly diverse and colorful—streaks of rusting orange and dark blue run against splashes and flecks of white. In her recent exhibition Ecotone at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, Riepenhoff showed works primarily made from falling water: rain, snow, hail. Hung in rows, most are slightly larger than human scale, dwarfing and humbling viewers.
One would think that this scale and texture would be hard to capture in a photobook, but Riepenhoff’s catalogue, published jointly with the gallery and Radius Press, is elegant and poetic. In much the same way her wall works create a relationship between humans and nature, her two-part publication, Littoral Drift + Ecotone, pushes the form of the book towards water, highlighting the surprising formal qualities these two mediums share. The term “littoral drift,” which refers to the movement of sand along the shoreline caused by breaking waves, as the artist interprets it is a “geologic term that describes wind-driven waves moving along a shoreline.” It conveys the “constant negotiation for space” between land and sea. “Ecotone” similarly denotes a meeting of two different ecosystems. The metaphor of the book is that of an opening—something we enter into. The ocean too is something that we enter, something that fully encloses us as we arrive in another world beneath the surface. This may seem like a poetic stretch—the book as the ocean—but Riepenhoff makes this relationship physical; her monograph is itself a fold, the ebb and flow of the ocean captured in the do-si-do binding of the two volumes so that they share the same back cover. When we reach the end of Littoral Drift, we open to the back of Ecotone, forcing us to flip over the large heavy book to read from the verso—or rather the front of the other book. A book with two fronts and no backs. An opening without a closing. As she explains in an interview with curator Charlotte Cotton, included as a delicate removable pamphlet tucked into the back of Ecotone, “Images from Littoral Drift and Ecotone are revealed in a kind of continuous circle of pages.” This is Riepenhoff’s brilliant synthesis of form and content.
The inside too does not disappoint: each half includes 100 lushly printed images documenting these two “sister series,” with heavy textured paper, double spreads, and fold-out pages. Reading this book is like taking an immersive swim. The works are presented unframed against white pages, their edges all bearing faint grey shadows, giving them weight on the page. Littoral Drift #999 (Triptych, Point White Beach, WA 09.17.16, Three Waves at Apex of Low Tide), a three part piece, runs across the centerfold. Bright blue washes across the sheets, lighter near the white that emerges from the bottom edges with the darkest blobs coming down from the top. The next page has a full bleed double-page detail spread of the first panel of the work, revealing the texture to be more patterned than smooth, like water brushed gently against the paper leaving raised white edges. Another work, Littoral Drift #05 (Recto/Verso, Rodeo Beach, Sausalito, CA 08.01.13, Two Waves, Dipped), is a mix of orange falling to meet rising white. The book page featuring the work is slightly smaller than the other pages, so that the edge of the next page is visible behind it as a strip on the right. Turn the page, there is the verso of this same work and across the fold is a full page detail of the front. Riepenhoff plays with what we expect when we turn the page. A mix of zooming in and pulling away furthers the movement of the book. We progress through the series but also we move forward and back; we move the book forward and back too, as we reach the divider between projects.
Tucked into the back of Littoral Drift is a foldout of process images showing the elaborate staging of paper required to create these works—pages hung over branches, weighted down by rocks on beaches, and tucked into snow piles. The second volume, Ecotone—the primary focus of the recent gallery exhibition—shows her work made from exposure to rain. These works are more graphic—linear light blue lines running across the paper in explosive horizontal, vertical, and diagonal patterns. Seeing these, we are reminded of the violence of rain, the damage storms can cause.
Though the book documents like a catalogue, including a few installation images mixed in with the plates, it manages, like the best artist’s book, to create a direct experience with the work of art in book form. Flipping the pages, I almost forget I am looking at photographs of photographs because the book succeeds in creating an experience in itself. When I reach the break between books, I am already awash in Riepenhoff’s colors, each turn of the page reveals a new mysterious meeting of human hand and nature. “It doesn’t have a start and end, front or back. For me, the journey of making this work is, in a way, about experiencing cycles and dynamism, and how those things exist both in us and around us in ways that we can and cannot control, or can and cannot impact.” At a moment when humans are grappling with how much—and how little—control we have over environment, climate, and the carnage it can cause, Riepenhoff’s book offers a thoughtful pause to consider the ways we can foster the beauty in nature, both great and terrifying.