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Eric William Carroll @ Highlight

Index 49, 2013, Pigment Ink Print, 16 x 13”

In photographer Eric William Carroll’s brilliant, humor-laced Highlight Gallery debut, images of the ineffable and the banal stand side-by-side, demonstrating the artist’s belief that all things, big and small, play a role in the origin of the universe and our own humble place in it. 

To situate viewers inside his science-informed worldview – which takes in Grand Unified Theory (G.U.T.) as well as various fringe ideas — Carroll works intuitively, combining his own photos with images from old textbooks and the Internet.  They spread across three tall gallery walls and conjoin cosmological subjects and their Earthy equivalents, implying a shared essence.  Some pictures appear exactly as he found them; others are manipulated.  Regardless of source or treatment, Carroll’s juxtapositions tell us that while an endless number of so-called equivalents can be found or inferred, no amount of scientific knowledge can make the universe comprehensible – not even to those immersed in such arcane disciplines as string theory and astrophysics.  In recognition of that fact, Carroll turns his irrepressible quest for understanding into a cosmic joke, a game of seeking out conjunctions among dissimilar things.  The resulting mash-ups invoke photographic history, scientific inquiry and some fantastic leaps of visual logic.

The exhibit wastes no time in nailing down its thesis. The first picture frame we see contains three images:  an x-ray of a hand, a flash photo of an aquatic plant that resembles a distant nebula, and an image of cracked mud that, for all we know, could have been harvested by the Mars Rover.  Together, they highlight a concern that is always been central to photography: namely, whether and to what degree pictures lie or tell the truth.   X-ray technology sits at the far end of the “truthiness” scale.  Introduced in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, it was thought at the time to be a high-water mark of scientific inquiry for having revealed things previously unseen by human eyes.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was “spirit photography” — darkroom trickery that duped the gullible and the grieving into thinking the camera could capture images of the dead.  Since then, photography has flipped back and forth between these poles. 
 
SLAC; Popsicle, both 2013, pigment Ink Prints, each 16 x 13"
 
So, too, does a lot of the work this show.   The final picture in this opening series, of a melting popsicle, looks more like a cloud of cosmic gas than something you could eat, and it would likely remain such were it not for a telltale stick that reveals the object’s true identity.  Carroll’s placement of it next to an aerial shot of the Stanford Linear Accelerator suggests that the difference between sugar water on pavement and microscopic views of smashed atoms might not be all that great.  The same holds for another trio of pictures that appears later in the show, wherein dandruff on a desk, stars from a distant galaxy and the spray of a human sneeze appear in close proximity. 
 

Uncommon commonalities such as these form the core of the exhibition.  Among the many highlights is a 20-picture grid (Index 29) that includes images of the artist’s eye, bike helmet and brain; a nebula seen through the Hubble Space Telescope; a stem cell; cross sections of a tomato and a walnut; the Voyager’s Golden Record (the phonograph disc that NASA shot into space to communicate with extraterrestrials); a drum kit that belonged to the late Neil Peart of Rush; an image from the Large Hadron Collider; a dahlia in Golden Gate Park; and a Calabi–Yau Manifold, the most basic unit of life according to String Theory. Where Christian Marclay surveyed film history and found it filled with clocks and references to time passing, Carroll, when he 

Index 29, 2013, Pigment Ink Print, 16 x 13"

looks at the universe, sees circles.  Some of the most surprising are viewable in an amateur telescope.  It’s aimed at a photograph of stars, but what you see through the viewfinder see isn’t that photo; it’s a tiny CRT screen that displays a shifting array of glowing dots — an optical feedback loop made by pointing a video camera at an image of UDFy-38135539,the second most distant object ever recorded, some 13.4 billion light years away. Appropriately, he calls this re-visualization The Big, Beautiful, Everlasting Bang.

While evidence of scientific inquiry abounds, it’s peppered at key junctures with wacky collisions.  The best example is a photo of smoke into which Carroll has inset a picture of an Electron Positron Pair.  The combination looks like a Paul Klee doodle set against a jellyfish, and it is easily the most eye-grabbing conjunction in a show overflowing with them.  Another image that stands in memory for the opposite reason is his shot of a braille book issued by NASA called Touch the Stars.  It highlights, says Carroll, “the absurdity of dumbing down a really content-loaded image to a few bumps on a page,” leaving to the imagination “what’s lost in the translation.”
 
Carroll, like many contemporary artists, leans heavily on Google for source material, but his inspiration for this body of work predates the Internet and the current rage for electronic appropriation.  The “touchstone,” he says, is Larry Sultan’s and Mike Mandel’s 1977 conceptual tour-de-force Evidence, a book of images culled from more than 100 public and corporate and public archives.  Carroll combines photos in much the same way Sultan and Mandel did.  He brings together pictures based on how they interact, leaving interpretative possibilities wide-open.  Thus, the show’s title, G.U.T. Feeling, references both his pseudo-scientific approach and his working method.
 
While some may mourn the forfeiture of originality in postmodern art, it’s difficult to discount the act of questioning the evidentiary nature of photography, particularly when those interrogations yield, as Carroll’s do, fresh connections between things Earthly and things we can scarcely imagine.   
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Eric William Carroll: “G.U.T. Feeling” @ Highlight Gallery through August 17, 2013 and at Pier 24 through May 2014.
 
An Interview with Eric William Carroll
 
Index 17, Pigment Ink Print
David M. Roth:  What led you to begin combining photos in the way that you do?
 
Eric William Carroll: Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence is the contemporary art reference point that I have, but I’m also going way back to surrealist collages and Dada—that kind of appropriation.  I also think it’s part of my generation though, too, in that we’re used to typing in an idea or phrase into Google and have it spit back images.  We’re inundated with a never-ending cascade of images.  So when you’re surfing the web and images that don’t have anything to do with one another show up — that’s forming new connections. I find that exciting.  It’s a new way of experiencing photography and acknowledging what’s been done in the past.
 
What about Evidence impressed you?
 
They did that project in the 1977, where they were going through old archives of institutions and labs and piecing together photos in a way most of us would consider haphazard.  But obviously the project was massively successful because people enjoyed the playful way that they handled the source material and the new connections that opened up with those images.  They’re a huge touchstone for me, especially in the way that an artist works with other people’s pictures. 
 
How do you work with images to create the conjunctions we see in this show?
 
I basically create a huge catalog.  For this show I was looking at over 20,000 images.  I was also reacting to all these theories.  I’d never, for example, heard of the Cosmological Constant.  So the question became: how do I find an image to represent it?  The ideas need to be visualized, and I go looking for images or phrases with that idea in mind.
 
Index 06, Pigment Ink Print, 16 x 13"
What is your process for moving out of the archive and physically assembling discrete groups?
 
The first stage is all-digital.  In the second stage I make 4 x 6” prints.  I have a few shoeboxes that are full of cut-up prints that I made or found, either on Internet or maybe in old encyclopedias or textbooks.   After I’ve selected the images I start to play around with them on the page, pasting them down using glue stick, and that forms the “rough draft” of the collages that I’m working with.
 
You mentioned when we met in the gallery that as an undergrad you majored in philosophy.  Was it philosophy that led you to science or was it the other way around?
 
It was definitely philosophy.  I found myself struggling with philosophy because I found it easier to illustrate my ideas through images rather than writing and research. 
 
At what level do you understand the ideas referenced in the show?  Can you hold you own in conversation with scientists who deal in things like String Theory and Higgs Boson?
 
Popular science is the level that I’m at.  Once it starts breaking down into mathematics or formulas with symbols that I don’t understand I tune out.  At some point the language just changes, and when you feel like you’re alienated, you begin building your own language, which is kind of what I’ve done with this show.
 
Index 31, Pigment Ink Print, 16 x 13"
Why the big grid occupying an entire gallery wall?
 
The grid is just one of these visual forms I keep integrating into my work.  It sets the tone for science; it sets up a scientific backdrop of how these things are measured.  I like that kind of rigidity.  At its most basic level it sets up a structure: an X and Y Axis.  When you’re trying to do a project about something as large as the entire universe it helps to give yourself a few formal constraints. 
 
So you’re looking at it as a formal signifier of science and as an organizing device as you would in, say, painting. 
 
Yes, both.
 
The main ideas I take away from your show are these: 1) For every cosmic form there’s an Earthly equivalent; 2) In photography, reality and illusion are often impossible to distinguish; and 3) The universe is ultimately unknowable Would that be close to hitting the mark?
 
Absolutely.  You’re spot-on. 
 
Are there other things, too, that you’d say are signature ideas in this show?
 
This is the first chapter of a larger body of work, part of the desire to understand and explain the universe.
 
Lastly, I just learned that your blueprint photograms are included in Pier 24’s current exhibition, A Sense of Place.  How did that come about?
 
The Pier bought my artist's book "Blue Line of Woods" and enjoyed the work so much that they asked if I would consider installing a section of the original photograms in one of their rooms.
 
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