by Renny Pritikin
Meghann Riepenhoff’s, current exhibition, Ice, at Haines Gallery, positions her among a remarkable coterie of West Coast artists who explore camera-less photographic processes dating to the early history of the medium. The practitioners, which are among those who have been dubbed the “antiquarian avant-garde,” include such artists as Vanessa Marsh, Klea McKenna, Robert Buelteman, Michael Schindler, Ben Nixon and others. Riepenhoff, for her part, places large pieces of light-sensitive paper onto beaches, lakes and snowbanks, allowing the interaction of chemicals, light, water and temperature to form images. The resulting cyanotypes, reflective of the artist’s mastery of what is essentially a trial-and-error process, offer complex landscapes in which to roam, conjuring associations that owe as much to our own inclinations as to what they actually depict.
In Ecotone #950 (Bainbridge Island, WA 02-15-16-21, Draped on Bar 99 Fence, Snowstorms), for example, the image and its connection to architecture combine to create a showstopper. Stand close to the seven-foot picture and you are immersed in a spectrum of icy blues. At the top, a dark blue rectangle, suffused with hundreds of lighter blue bubbles, gives way to a less-saturated field awash in froth. From the midpoint to the bottom quarter, what looks like icy water terminates in two dramatic ridges of blue and white. At the bottom, the blue rectangle that began at the top is permeated with whale’s-breath bubbles, a form whose gravitational weight evokes a multistory tower built of frozen water.
Scratchy, often rune-like markings frequently dominate the surface of these prints, artifacts, no doubt, of the above-described process. Similarly, marks that resemble bird footprints — four or five short strokes meeting at a central point – can also be detected, remnants of ice crystals that leave fossil-like imprints, evidence of their brief existence. A third motif arises from swirling lines created by moving water recorded over the duration of the exposure.
Riepenhoff occasionally “cheats” by adding small amounts of chemicals to achieve color effects, as in Ice #129 (28-32°F, Big Creek, WA 03.09.20). The seven-foot-wide print sports pale yellow elements resting amidst swatches of blue and white that recall Morris Louis’ stain paintings of the 1950s. Its imposing scale also suggests an abstract take on Albert Bierstadt’s 19th-century landscape paintings of the American West.
The artist also makes triptychs and diamond-shaped pieces. Ice #64 (18-29°F, Aspen, CO 02.10-12.20), for example, looks like a collection of crashing waves beneath a dark, moonless night sky. Ice #144, reverses that scenario with a thin, dark blue strip of night sky at the top, suggesting clouds of snow wafting into the air. Ice #45 (33-42°F, Bainbridge Island, WA 1.17.20) reads as a satellite image of Antarctica.
One of the eye-opening realizations we take from nature photography is the link between the ineffable and our own quotidian human experience. In other centuries this was called the sublime — the awareness of the vastness of creation and the terrifying smallness of our own existence. If I had been told
that Ice #146, and Ice #168, for example, were images of distant galaxies taken by the Hubbell telescope, I would not have doubted that information. Whether a ray of light stretches a few feet from me to you, or a thousand light years across space, we innately recognize at the deepest level when an image captures the truth inherent in great beauty. Riepenhoff’s collaborations with nature do exactly that.
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Meghann Riepenhoff: “Ice” @ Haines Gallery through January 29, 2022.
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.