by Renny Pritikin
By virtue of its ability to stop time, photography has long been criticized for giving a false picture of reality. The argument goes that without knowing what happened before or after a photo was taken —never mind where it was taken —we can’t understand what an image means. Beth Moon plays with this idea in her two-part exhibition Essential Form at Dolby Chadwick Gallery through October 30.
Both are intended to pedagogically enhance the viewer’s appreciation of nature’s inherent weirdness and magically hidden processes. The first suite, based on everyday flora, extends the work of Karl Blossfeldt, an early 20th-century German photographer whose close-up images of plants were admired by the Surrealists. It consists of nine large-scale (53 x 36 inch) black-and-white pictures of acorns, two of which are composites; the largest, Oak Seed #1, contains six images and measures 39 x 70 inches. Because Moon coats watercolor paper with platinum emulsion, her prints range in tonality from black to gray to
sepia and evoke a painterly, antiquarian feeling. Acorns are the fruit of oak trees and contain a seed that sits inside a little cup; they can take from six months to two years to mature. The first step is that a root emerges from the acorn and begins to search for a place to establish itself, groping blindly but purposefully for appropriate soil. This is the point at which Moon takes her photographs.
Just as enlarged images of insects simultaneously attract and repel us by their alien presence, a similar dynamic occurs when we observe a plant’s movement in time-lapse cinematography. What we normally perceive as static is, in fact, active: A plant leaning into the light, searching for a fence to latch onto or soil to dig down into, exhibits intentionality, which is unnerving because that is a trait we associate with consciousness. The sensations we feel when viewing such images border on voyeuristic since the character of the activity pictured verges on being sexual.
Moon uses our familiarity with time-lapse photographs of plants to play with photography’s freezing of time: we see a still of a tap root’s groping for access, and we play out an unseen film in our minds of what happened before and will happen afterward. Such pictures remind us of the humblest machinations of the natural world, of events going on all around us, almost always ignored and unseen.
The second body of work, Augurs and Soothsayers, consists of formal portraits of chickens made in 2010. These birds are so maligned in our imagination (e.g., dumb clucks) that the thought of taking them as subjects for serious study can seem ludicrous. Moon’s images vanquish such thoughts. She does for chickens what August Sander did for the German working class in the 19th century. Like Sander, who created definitive typological studies, Moon takes forthright, deferential frontal images of endangered heritage chicken breeds, all of which were raised on a farm operated by the actress Isabella Rossellini for the express purpose of preserving them. Moon uses a large aperture with a shallow depth of field to capture these notoriously uncooperative subjects at a scale that appears to be larger than life, owing to the fact that the pictures – nearly all of which are head shots — occupy most of the frame. In each case, she records the birds’ staring back at her, revealing what appears to be a mindful awareness of themselves in relation to the camera. If we slow down and study them, we see the sensational feathers they display and details of their combs (atop the head) and wattles (at the throat), which come in eight different
configurations. Personalities loom large: some have a Churchillian haughtiness, others the swaggering style of a fur-wrapped Mae West. Some carry evolved headdresses and a great variety of elaborate feather designs, some of which suggest a British monarch’s capes or exquisitely detailed plant leaves. These rococo morphologies are dramatically juxtaposed with those of birds exhibiting less extravagant features.
An attractive book titled Literary Chickens accompanies the exhibition, with anecdotal testimony by Rossellini, the acclaimed naturalist Jane Goodall, and others, all of whom call on us to pay attention to what is lost when industrialized agriculture limits the diversity of animal life.
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Beth Moon: “Essential Forms” @ Dolby Chadwick Gallery through October 30, 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.