A search for patterns in the light – and dark

Pub date February 24, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

A search for patterns in the light — and in the dark


Trevor Paglen’s section of the 2008 SECA Art Award exhibition is somewhat centrally located — you have to pass through it to get to Jordan Kantor’s room, as well as to a small room containing pieces by all four awardees. This positioning resonates, for Paglen is nothing if not conscious of maps and their meanings, and his contributions have visual connections to the other three artists. The dizzying, multicolored swirls of Nine Reconnaissance Satellites over the Sonora Pass, a c-print from 2008, aren’t far from Tauba Auerbach’s post-op art graphics. The night skies in Paglen’s photography aren’t far from the deep blues and flaring lights of Kantor’s 2008 oil-on-canvas Untitled (lens flare), where the painted camera effects are also suggestive of one of Kantor’s Paglenesque earlier subjects, the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Such ties are helpful, because the flagrantly governmental subject matter and complicatedly political perspectives of Paglen’s work make it too easy to downplay or ignore its artistic facets. The white spots of 2008’s PARCAE Constellation in Draco (Naval Ocean Surveillance System, USA 160) are a photo-corollary to those found in Bruce Conner’s lovely late-era ink drawings. (Like Paglen, the late Conner kept his eye on activities the U.S. hides in plain sight, and that awareness adds undercurrents to works of his that might otherwise be coded as purely spiritual.) When Paglen, from a mile away, uses a long-lens camera to uncover the ambiguous activities of an unmarked 737 in a black spot in Las Vegas, I’m reminded of the telescopic images of cruelty at the end of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1957 Salò. But unlike Pasolini, Paglen is far from being in full charge of the staging, so his seductive images can only blurrily hint at barbarism or sinister motive.

"Photography — and this is especially true after September 11 — is a performance," Paglen told Thomas Keenan in an Aperture article from last year. "To photograph is to exercise the right to photograph. Nowadays, people get locked up for photographing the Brooklyn Bridge." Paglen’s pictures are the most successful portion of his SECA contribution — his presentation of emblematic Pentagon patches, while provocative and even aesthetically playful, raises (much like William E. Jones’ so-called 2007 film Tearoom) problems of authorship. By looking up at the sky and revealing that it’s looking back down at us, Paglen creates a grounded answer to the work of aerial photographers such as Michael Light, whose visions reorient one’s perspective. Paglen isn’t out to make you see clearly. He wants you to look deeper. And wonder. (Johnny Ray Huston)

For a review of Trevor Paglen’s new book, Blank Spots on the Map (Dutton), see Lit, page 42.


Tauba Auerbach is shaking up her spin-off sphere of the so-called Mission School with optical investigations into that interzone between the figurative and abstract, representational systems and what they communicate, order and chaos. This Bay Area native — at 27, the youngest of the current SECA Award winners — was likewise shaken to the core as an eight-year-old during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. "Actually I was at gymnastic class on Judah Street and on the uneven bars," she recalls by phone from New York City, where she now resides. "I was swinging from the low bar to the high bar when it just moved away from me and I fell. It was absolute chaos. Adults screaming conflicting instructions to us. I saw the windows bow in and out, and I remember driving home over the hill and seeing smoke and thinking our house was gone."

The memory bubbles up — as vivid and close to the surface as Auerbach’s perusal of chance and broken glass, Shatter II (2008), in the SECA exhibition — while she talks about her latest project: a piece for the Exploratorium’s "Geometry Playground," which opens in September. The title sounds like a perfect fit: a brain-teasing sense of play underlies many of Auerbach’s projects, including the design of new mathematical symbols for Cambridge University logician Byron Cook’s research into computer science’s famed termination, or halting, problem. "I think there are shortcomings in any coding system," she muses. "Binary is so interesting because the components are so limited…. Every time you want ambiguity in a binary system, you have to simulate it."

Auerbach’s darting intelligence peels off in many directions, much like her eye-boggling patterns. The artist’s old day job, in which she learned the lost art of sign painting at New Bohemia Signs in the Mission District, dovetails with her witty, abstracted deconstructions — or explosions — of writing and semaphore systems, assorted alphabets, Morse code, and eye charts. Two such 2006 works, The Whole Alphabet, From the Center Out, Digital V and …VI, which layer letters drawn from a digital clock, are on display at SFMOMA.

Penetrating glances into chaos and change yielded Auerbach’s largest pieces — the 2008 Crumple paintings — in which she crumpled paper, photographed the results, and then translated the creases onto canvas with halftone printing and paint carefully applied by hand. The folds materialize as one steps further back — and break down into dizzying pixels close up. Multiple entry points exist down this rabbit hole, first carved out by Op artist Bridget Riley. But as with Auerbach’s 2008 Static chromogenic prints, which saw her looking for randomness in analog TV static, the hidden spectrums and other visual tricks are rendered with an elegance a scientist would appreciate. (Kimberly Chun)


In Jordan Kantor’s paintings, meaning is candid. When the word "candid" entered the English language in the 17th century, it was closer to its Latin roots, meaning "bright," "light," "radiant," "glow," or "white," with whiteness symbolizing purity and sincerity. Later, as the word approached then copulated with the critical language of photography — that crazy new field of "light writing" initially accused of everything from demonic possession to being a potential assassin of traditional visual arts like painting — "candid" gave birth to its common usage today, meaning "frank," "blunt," "severe," a harsh snapshot, brutally honest vision. So severity in art became intertwined with truth.

Kantor’s local gallery, Ratio 3, with its emphasis on projects’ overall coherence, is a welcome home to his current trajectory. His pieces for the SECA Art Award exhibition are alive with many truths at once, their spaces equally negative and positive. The three Untitled (lens flare) paintings and Untitled (HD lens flare), all from 2008, make you step back, only to feel as if your are standing closer than before. Untitled (Surgery) (2006–07) and Untitled (Eclipse) (2008) glow with negative light. This work is in stride with Kantor’s participation in important group shows at Galeria Luisa Strina in São Paolo ("This Is Not a Void," 2008) and New York’s Lombard-Freid Projects ("Image Processor," 2007) that dealt with our unstable relationship with images. It confirms that he is a photographer who just happens to use paint. I see aspects of Linda Connor’s slow, large exposures here, as well as Cindy Sherman’s foxes-in-the-headlights humans.

Kantor isn’t hardened by academia, though he has a PhD from Harvard and teaches at California College of the Arts. The brilliant candidness in his pictures is tied to an aesthetic understanding of human desires and scientific pursuits, but also to a humanistic refusal to be neutral. If you spend enough time with his work, you start to see that it is candid in its celebration, not just in its criticism. It reminds me of the ending to poet James Wright’s "A Christmas Greeting," from Shall We Gather at the River (1963), where the dead and the living ask the same questions: "Charlie, I don’t know what to say to you," the poet pines to someone he might have known or just imagined, "Except Good Evening, Greetings, and Good Night, / God Bless Us Every One. Your grave is white. / What are you doing here?" (Ari Messer)