by Max Blue
Speak to the Stones, and the Stars Answer, a two-person exhibition featuring photographer Linda Connor and Chinese sculptor Zhan Wang, is an ode to history, both human and geologic. Connor displays photos of ancient spiritual sites, petrified bodies from Pompeii, re-photographed century-old glass plate images of the night sky, and photos of geologic sedimentation. Zhang presents stainless steel sculptures cast from rock formations. The inspired pairing of these divergent processes, one derived from chemistry and light, the other from industrially cast metal, stands as a potent reminder of the primordial forces that have shaped both the Earth and human consciousness. Together, their works ignite a dialog between past and present, form and content.
Over the course of a career spanning nearly 50 years, Connor has printed her photographs on a wide variety of materials, from standard archival photographic paper to silk and linen. Speak to the Stones, and the Stars Answer presents viewers with her latest experiment: 45 sublimation prints on aluminum. The technique is a chemical ink-transfer printing process from a paper print of the photograph. The result is an iridescent image that seems to float just beneath the surface of the panel, exuding rich blacks and golden, shimmering highlights, reminiscent of copper plate or daguerreotype photographs.
These pieces are sculptural, not new territory for the photographer. The 2013 exhibition at Haines Gallery, From Two Worlds, included photographs that had been transferred onto silk banners and displayed like tapestries. They marked a move away from Connor’s signature technique: contact prints made in the dark-room from 8 x 10-inch negatives. The sublimation prints relate well to Wang’s four stainless steel castings of peculiar rock formations. Both bodies of work, Connor’s and Wang’s, feature reflective surfaces: gold and silver, respectively, which serve to locate the viewer within the chronology of human history and geologic time.
Gazing into the star field and surface of the water in Connor’s Moonrise, Clouds, and Star Trails; Lake Tsomoriri, Ladakh, India, 1998, we see not only the iridescence of the moon reflected on the lake, but also our own visage. Similarly, in contemplating any of Wang’s sculptures, especially Artificial Rock #119, if only for its sheer size – it stands more than ten feet tall in its own black-walled, dimly lit room — we see our own image fractured across the bubbling
surface. We come to haunt the work as we interact with it, just as generations before us have haunted the sites Connor depicts and trod the earth out of which Wang casts his sculptures. Oddly, it’s the total absence of people in Connor’s photographs that imbues them with a palpable human presence.
Some of her pictures lend themselves particularly well to a direct visual dialogue with Wang’s sculptures. Take, for example, Once the Ocean Floor, Series #90, an abstract rock landscape shot from a vantage that obscures its true scale; it could be vast or minute. Another of Connor’s photographs, Marble Torso, Rome, 2015, depicting a broken Roman bust, prompts us to consider Wang’s work in turn as vaguely figurative, perhaps ghostly. That quality invites us to consider the casts not as stainless steel, but as objects cast in light, like photographs.
Connor’s work also speaks of the passage of time in human terms. The series of ten photographs titled UnEarthed, Body Casts from Pompeii, in honor of Giorgio Sommer, 2015, depicts mummy-like bodies from Pompeii, similar in character to images made by Sommer in the 19th century; they float on deep black fields, placing the genealogy of humanity directly inside the geologic past. (The group also calls to mind the series Aaron Siskind made of divers.) Even Connor’s re-photographing of glass plate photos of star fields, originally made at Lick Observatory in the 19th century, reinforces a sense of history predating humanity. Titles such as June 26, 1892, reminds us that what we are looking at is a vestige of the distant past. By the time the image of a star field reaches our eyes, it is thousands, if not millions of years removed from its point of origin. This underscores the fact that a photograph is itself always a
relic, as much a step in the lineage of human progression as the markers of history Connor takes as her subjects: Roman sculptures, the cavernous entrance to a tomb in Jordan, Native American cave paintings and so much else. Similarly, Wang’s sculptures also serve as a record, solidifying a moment in the progression of the earth’s ever changing and decaying geological structures.
Speak to the Stars creates room for contemplation of human genealogy and the spiritual ties that bind us cross-culturally, through shared geology and the record-keeping device of the photograph. It probes the notion of the negative, with photography and casting offering didactic (and diametrically opposed) examples. For Connor, it’s precisely the absence of people that situates us in the chronology depicted. While Wang’s sculptures do not bear the mark of a human hand in appearance, they are most certainly the product of human creation. As the earth informs us, so, too, do we form the earth, whether carving temples into mountainsides or shaping stones from steel.
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About the author:
Max Blue, a Northern-California native and life-long resident, is a writer of criticism, fiction and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. His writing has appeared in Art Practical and Digital America.