In Hiroshi Sugimoto's stunning "Lightning Fields no. 176" (2009), a fearsome storm appears to have raged upon the surface and left slashes of lightning strikes across a void of black. The scale of the work is substantial—it fills a small gallery wall—so the depth of blackness is one you can get lost in, a pool of darkness that both soothes and unnerves.
Within this dark are subtle phenomena, the results of photographic paper submerged in water shot through with electrical impulses, which give rise to a sublime, luminescent feathering. With this single searing image, Sugimoto seems to be whispering secrets to us about the history of landscape painting and photography, and he reveals the unspoken truth that landscapes have always been as much about sky as they are about land—and about the power of skies and storms to capture our imaginations.
Perhaps it is the work's lack of literality, the fact that it is not a photograph but the result of a photographic alchemy of light and chemicals, that allows us to see as much as we do. One's associations may run rampant, from fractal swirls to the epic storms of Shakespeare's The Tempest and King Lear (indeed, Sugimoto's early photos of empty theaters are legendary). Or one might think of recent installations by Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde, who creates the three-dimensional illusion of cumulonimbus cloud formations floating in actual empty gallery spaces, and Walter de Maria's site-specific project The Lightning Field in New Mexico, an outdoor grid of brass rods that bring on pyrotechnical spectaculars in the presence of storms.
"Lightning Fields no. 176" is the centerpiece of Adding to the Mix 5, part of a continuing series at UNC's Ackland Art Museum that offsets recent acquisitions against resonant examples from its permanent collection. In this instance, Adding to the Mix features photographic works that were produced through techniques that don't involve a camera.
Gary Schneider's "Retinas" (1998) is from his Genetic Self-Portrait series, which he did in connection with the Human Genome Project. The work is a diptych of two dark, almost malevolent, interiors of human eyes that resemble cat eyes or twin full moons, with veins that double as gnarled, gothic trees or black lightning (the negative counterpoint to Sugimoto's white veins of light).
Nearby, "God Is Love," an 1865 image by Anna R. Weaver (née Kuhn), is an albumen print in which ferns and flowers spell out the work's title. The piece is disarming: We're so used to art serving as critique, and this pious statement at first appears to be utterly one-note and sincere. Yet perhaps in its own way it is a form of critique. After all, the work was done in 1865 and can be seen as a sly take on "women's craft," using the bleeding-edge technology of the time to render a homely sampler in a matter of seconds—as opposed to the hours of penitent toil that would have otherwise been required to needlepoint or embroider the same phrase.
Barbara Morgan's "Samadhi" (1940), a luminous portrait of Martha Graham produced as Graham moved while holding a "pen of light," conveys a sense of calligraphic authority and has the feel of a Zen brush painting. The glowing central figuration has the precision of a symbol or an alphabetical character.
There's only one color work in the show, Marco Breuer's "Untitled c471" (2004), which requires a bit of time and effort for it to pay off. The piece is from his Pantilt series and it involves the "slicing, scarring, cutting" of photographic paper and exposing it to create a chromogenic print. It's a small work, but give it time and it begins to produce a profound architectural depth, as if to reveal the sparkling grids of multiple distant cities in the darkness. As with Sugitomo's "Lightning Fields," the associations run rampant, suggesting the intergalactic infinities of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and the urban futurescapes of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Indeed, Breuer's diminutive piece delivers a subtle science fiction built of chemicals, light and fantasy-triggering abstraction. Each work in this small exhibit has something to recommend it, and gives us the opportunity to dream about light and physics, science and art.
When you go to the Ackland, be sure to also catch the exhibit Director's Choice: Art Since 1950 From the Ackland Art Museum Collection, Adding to the Mix 4: Johann Joachim Kändler's Apollo (c. 1748) and some terrific examples of Southeast Asian art in one of the main galleries.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Eyes without cameras."