by Renny Pritikin
Crown Point Press has accumulated a vast and invaluable archive of prints made in its studios over the 60 years that it has been inviting artists to create new work. The list includes many people not known as printmakers, such as the late painter Wayne Thiebaud, the composer John Cage, and now the photographer Catherine Wagner. The gallery’s holdings enabled Wagner to enhance the visitor experience by augmenting her one-person show of newly commissioned works with relevant work by others. In the current exhibition, End Grain: The Displaced Shadow, created during Wagner’s 2021 residency at the gallery, prints by Sol Lewitt from 1974 and 1975 and Richard Tuttle from 1998 serve as de facto introductory “texts,” addressing the subjects of squares, rectangles and parallelograms. In turn, Wagner’s suite of prints is a meditation on the morphology of a set of wooden blocks she has photographed and then rendered as blue photogravures.
Lewitt’s two prints are related to his long-term project of designing large-scale geometric murals to be created by others, following his detailed instructions. Here, he meticulously describes the potential installation of a large parallelogram and a large tilted rectangle, taking care to calibrate scale and form to a specific architectural environment. Tuttle envisions his three prints (Mandevilla I, II, and IV) functioning on a more modest scale: on small pieces of paper. They examine the impact on the eye of colors juxtaposed across a few simple geometric forms.
There are, of course, differences between these works and Wagner’s. Though known for stark portraits of inanimate objects, Wagner is less formalist than Lewitt and Tuttle. Her dry, deadpan photos expose the critical narrative beneath mute objects. Images that emerged from her residency at a medical research lab in Israel, for example, appear to document equipment and specimens framed in severe isolation; but her goals are more profound: exposing the aesthetics of medicine, probing the links and differences between scientific and artistic research and, locating the untold story behind glass phials and freezers full of blood.
Part of the success of this exhibition rests with how she infuses these little doodads with great charm and presence. In the same way, a child might spend hours playing with wood blocks, one suspects a similar kind of rabbit hole opening for Wagner while selecting and posing her toy-like subjects. In a recent New York Times review of a certain infamous minimalist’s work, Blake Gopnik praised the artist’s sense of play, adding that this sort of activity is what builds the human brain.
Wagner worked with 21 pieces of wood, all different and most likely smaller than six inches. Each carries distinct surface grains, displayed in 21 different configurations: a horizontal Y shape, several squares and rectangles, some with grooves or ripples on their faces and three L shapes. These variations, coupled with the direct way Wagner shot them, lend each piece an undeniable personality, defined and enhanced by different striations, shades and notches.
Wagner multiplies the impact of these distinctions by pairing most of them with adjoining prints in which the image is replaced by its shadow. Like Peter Pan’s, they’ve lost their connection to their object. This device draws our attention to the inherent liveliness of inconsequential things we often overlook. Furthermore, recapitulating missing objects through their shadows is something we do instinctively. Just as we often recognize an acquaintance from a distance merely by their walk or the way they carry themselves, so, too, can we recreate an object from its shadow.
Works such as these refer to several varieties of abstract language: an eye chart, say, or an array of headshots in a school yearbook. Architecture, a longstanding interest of the artist, also comes into play, as gathering lumber is the beginning step in building a structure. The title, End Grain, of course, refers to two-by-fours and tree rings, an internal measure of time. Wagner quietly weaves together these elements—the passage of time, the built environment, verbal communication—in a modest yet reverberant set of blueprint-like prints.
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Catherine Wagner: “End Grain: The Displaced Shadow” @ Crown Point Press through March 4, 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.