by Renny Pritikin
The Royal Palm pops up often in contemporary California art: as a motif in Ed Ruscha’s work, for example, and more ubiquitously in the California Arts Council license plate designed by Wayne Thiebaud. These sunny depictions of West Coast flora invoke the myth of a California Eden. In Surface Tension, her newly opened exhibition at the Mills College Art Museum, Bay Area photographer Tabitha Soren flips this script, showing three palms engulfed in one of the decade’s recurring infernos. The reality of these catastrophes comes to us through electronic screens, which Soren re-photographs to better understand how we consume such material and how it affects our collective psyche.
Using an 8 x 10 camera set at an oblique angle, she photographs the content on her iPad, which reveals fingerprints on its glass surface. Sometimes the fingerprints are inconsequential, but more often they dominate the image, adding a frisson of human presence over the surface of the print and a counterpoise to the depths of whatever scene is depicted. Combined, the two elements emphasize that duality: the constant blizzard of information received from the digital “out there” bumping up against the vulnerability of our corporeal lives. For Soren, the means of receiving photographs — glass screens—is cold, lifeless and flat, whereas our receipt of that information is emotional, subjective and sweaty because we’re made of flesh and blood.
Among the first pieces we encounter are two that utilize language. In one of them, the town of Paradise burns with a nearby road sign that reads “END.” In the other, twitter.com/theqavoice.com:community:features, 2018, a still-functioning traffic arrow points to a firestorm consuming a store, including its name, revealed in a fast-disappearing sign, as “This and That.” Between them are two landscapes, one taken off the coast of Greenland, pbs.or/nova/Greenland_is_shrinking, 2018, the other of an unidentified glacier, Katie’s Vacation Phone Photo, 2018. The blue-white palette of the latter is complicated by a sky aglow with white fingerprints that read as brushstrokes. Another almost-abstract work depicting the Great Barrier Reef snaps into focus only when we detect the presence of divers. With images like these, Soren draws attention to the contradiction between the ease with which we acquire them and the difficulty of understanding them, both being functions of the biological and psychological baggage we bring to such encounters.
After this opening sequence, Soren shifts our attention to the built world. A shot of an empty prison cot, dailydot/com/via/kalief-browder-justice-system-mass-incarceration/, 2018, set between concrete walls could not be more abject or searing – it cries absence. Next comes a detail of a tattooed arm with an index finger eerily pointing to the upper right corner of the frame, reminiscent of the traffic signal mentioned earlier. In this, everything but the arm is “erased” by fingerprints of the artist. The doubled trope — one human gesture obscured by another — is particularly affecting. The most mysterious image in the exhibition shows two young children in mid-collision. Are they underwater? Fighting or playing? Whatever the case, their direct contact stands in sharp contrast to what we experience as viewers looking at scenes that have passed through the distribution systems of Instagram, the iPad screen and the physical print within the museum. Subsequent images depict a curled-up hand; two shirtless Black men touching awkwardly; a young girl blowing a kiss; and a sleeping child nestling with a parent. Finally, a work called Losing Touch Tower, 2017, a stack of six close-up images of faces in distress, buttresses Soren’s argument for intimacy in an era of isolation.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, though certainly not its highlight, is a series of 15 pictures mounted on mirrored plexiglass that hang by cables from the ceiling at different heights. They depict marches, protests, riots and other scenes of social and political unrest. Because of the sheer surfeit of such images, they lack the emotional impact of what’s seen elsewhere in the exhibition. (It doesn’t help, either,
that Soren backs them with mirrors in an attempt to make us complicit in the events pictured, a shop-worn strategy that no longer works.) On the other hand, the final offering in the show, a low-key video installation, really does work. It features three large plexiglass-covered C-prints on the floor that catch the light of a projected video. Moonlight reflecting off a lake’s waves shown in the video reiterates the white fingerprint smudges on the surfaces of Soren’s found internet photographs, equating human touch with nature’s light.
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Tabitha Soren: “Surface Tension” @ Mills College Art Museum through December 12, 2021.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020.