Several times over the past few years I’ve written about the “antiquarian avant guarde”. The term was coined by Lyle Rexer, and it refers to photographers who use 19th and early 20th century techniques to generate visionary works. There’s a delectable irony in these back-to-the-future strategies, but what is even more exciting is the expressiveness evinced in these artists’ works. If you’ve grown weary of the theory-driven acolytes of the Dusseldorf school who, for decades, have dominated art photography, you will probably find such experiments invigorating.
Adam Fuss, Marco Breuer and Ellen Carey are among the better-known pioneers in this “alternative” realm. Bihn Dahn, Robert Buelteman, Chris McCaw and John Chiara are likeminded Bay Area artists. Berlin-based Wolfgang Ganter, 34, seems poised to enter their ranks. Ganter doesn’t corrupt tried-and-true chemical formulations or devise camera-less schemes to capture images; with an ingenious variant of straight photography, his photos do something exceedingly rare: they deliver pure abstraction without asking for real-world referents.
Ganter skirts that demand it by subjecting found slides to bacterial “erosion”. The idea arose while he was viewing transparencies salvaged from a garbage dump through a microscope. Amazed by what he saw, he began conducting controlled experiments of his own in which he applied select strains to exposed slides, re-fixing the eroded transparencies in sunlight. He then re-photographed those images, subdividing them into thousands of microscopic cells, which he assembles electronically into the large composites we see here. If there was any recognizable imagery in Ganter’s source material, little of it remains intact, so complete is the obliteration of whatever was on the slides.
Ganter’s finished pictures consist of brightly colored organic forms that make for an engaging kind of biological Pop, one that falls comfortably between painting and photography without triggering the expectations we have of either. They deliver neither the veracity of photos (however compromised that idea might be) or the tactile experience of painting. What we get Instead is a facsimile of both. By turning the “canvas” of the slide into a petri dish, Ganter convincingly evokes the look (but not the feel) of various painting techniques: staining, etching, spattering, marbleizing and, in select instances, the illusion of spatial depth, owing to the pictures’ varnished surfaces, which I find irritating but ultimately forgivable since the alterative, flatness, would be more problematic still. With regard to these painterly aspirations, the show’s title, Informel Logic, rings true as the pictures clearly reference major Art Informel painters like Hans Hartung and Jean Fautrier.
Ganter’s transformations allude most strongly to life’s primordial beginnings and the cosmic and geological processes that accompanied them. From the gauzy black circles and wavy sperm-like shapes in Sporen we can imagine cell division. In the gaseous “clouds” of Leichte landschaft and Walchensee im Frühling we see fiery cosmic explosions.
Fade brings to mind an erupting volcano, while Vorhang shows what looks to be a distant peak viewed from the bottom of a lake rendered in psychedelic shades of pink, fuschia, purple and turquoise. Zentrum, a similarly hued cross section of what appears to be tree, contains a mysterious white shape that recalls light-emitting deep-sea creatures.
If you wonder whether Ganter is a one-trick pony, I can assure you that he is not. Ganter’s experiments range far and wide, and his ability to predict and control how bacteria will react with photo chemicals has been demonstrated in two prior bodies of work, only one of which resembles the one on view here. For proof, ask to see the images of the paintings Ganter photographed at Louvre. The two I saw from the Iconoclash series — Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and Masaccio’s The Expulsion from Paradise –– are drop-dead gorgeous. Their sumptuousness and radiant beauty, replete with bio-chemical enhanced craquelure, recall the Rennaissance-influenced works of two other groundbreaking photographers: Doug and Mike Starn.
Like the Starns, Ganter looks deeply into art history and natural history. Onto both subjects he grafts his unique imprimatur, which, at this juncture, seems infinitely extensible.
–DAVID M. ROTH