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Pierre Cordier and Gundi Falk @ Haines

Chimigramme 23.5.13 Pair-Impair, 2013, chemigram on paper, unique 14.5 x 9"

How important is it to really understand how an image was made?  Contemplating most art objects, we think we know, more or less, how they came into being. The chemigram, invented in 1956 by Belgian artist Pierre Cordier, is a different story.   Cordier offers up a seemingly straightforward explanation, but the process remains maddeningly opaque.  These “camera-less” photographic images are the result of exposing photo paper to the same chemicals usually employed to develop and fix images, but in unconventional ways: painted on the paper in broad daylight, they create a kind of “bloom.”  Additional materials localize and particularize the chemical events taking place, functioning as resists.  They include oil and varnish, but also honey, syrup or nail polish, all of which interact with the chemicals and paper in different ways. 

Decades of experimentation have resulted in images that display what can only be described as an exquisite kind of controlled chance. Such a description, however, fails to convey the confounding complexity of these works.  For the most part, mesmerizing patterns fill the pictures’ rectangular format.  Measuring 20 x 24 or 10 x 12 inches, they’re small by today’s inflated standards; yet each invites and rewards close examination of their seemingly inexhaustible detail. 
Those on view date from the last two years, and are jointly produced by Cordier and the Austrian artist Gundi Falk, a collaboration that began in 2011. In an interview from 2012, Cordier described the images they create as “nests of sturdy lines…windows opening onto a night where you can see stars, moons, suns, unknown beings.  An opposition between order and disorder, between the controlled …and the random.”  Chimigramme 25/5/13/ Impair/Pair (2013) embodies this poetic description, with its precise rectangular grid of squares filled with tightly-spiraling lines that seeminglydissolve at its borders into an intricate, chaotic lace of black, brown and white. In several squares within the grid, the delicate spirals blur and melt towards light or darkness, each in its own unique way. 
As Cordier’s description indicates, it is possible to predict but not to control the reactions that have produced this infinitely varied pattern. Close examination —the kind that is only possible in person — reveals a glossy,

Chimigramme 1/3/14, 2014, 24 x 20"

silky surface, interrupted by short raised lines along the edges of some of the squares.  Perhaps these are cuts in the surface that permit the chemicals to interact more directly in some precise locations. However they were created, these tiny scars are a reminder that these are unique works, made by hand—as much a result of physical action as chemical. 

The horror vacui of many of Cordier’s and Falk’s pictures is both magnetic and slightly disturbing, recalling the claustrophobically line-filled works of Outsider artists such as Adolph Wolfli or Martin Ramirez (minus the figuration).  But in one of the most recent works in the show, Chimigramme 1/3/14 (2014), some air remains, and the effect is electric. A band of wavering parallel lines zigzags from border to border across a field of white. Its edges are beginning to break apart, suggesting a form compressed almost to the point of collapsing into itself and filling the empty space that remains. Or is it about to spring open? The fact that there is no way to know only adds to its mysterious allure.
Pierre Cordier and Gundi Falk: “Index and Icon” @ Haines Gallery, through May 2, 2015
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 85 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts. 

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