by Renny Pritikin
Christine Elfman’s current exhibition of photos taps into a melancholy 19th- century American fixation with death that suffused much of the culture of that time. Some of the earliest uses of photography were to document the faces of recently deceased relatives: a kind of technological version of a death mask. The same held when Edison first popularized audio recordings. Observers believed its most popular function would be recording the voices of departed relatives. The widespread influence of Christian evangelism at the time emphasized the primacy of the afterlife; at the end of the century, fake spirit photographs of ghosts were widely accepted as proof.
In All Solid Shapes Dissolve in Light, Elfman places ephemerality front and center. She prints most of her photographs with anthotype lichen dyes, an obscure technique that imparts an antique, blurry image with a lifespan measured in years, if not centuries depending on storage conditions. The artist attempts a correspondence between the brevity of human existence and that of her art objects. In her view, we waste too much energy denying death, whether of our bodies or our creations. However, she makes a minor concession to practicality by coating some of the dye prints with resin, significantly extending their lifetimes. “Ruin,” she says, “is the subject, medium, and fate of my photographs.”
Iterations of human touch frequently reoccur in the show, including plaster casts of both the artist’s and her mother’s hands, photographed clasping, thus arguing for an appreciation of the fleeting yet emotionally powerful nature of generational connection. When Elfman adds a third kind of hand—that taken from plaster casts of classical statuary—she ups the stakes beyond sentiment to measuring time via shared human existence carried forward. She also suggests the connection between contemporary and ancient art practice; what survives is culture, not individuals or our achievements.
Elfman also plays with the difference between the relative permanence of the object depicted and the transience of the image. Such works as Fragments 1 (a diptych) are often of stones or the drapery from plaster casts of classical statuary, as in Fold. She makes diptychs or triptychs that complicate the relationships among the juxtaposed objects because some elements are coated in resin and others art not. Some are lichen dye; others are silver prints. These become a metaphor for a basic human certainty: the length of our lives is ultimately unknowable.
An interesting subset of the works on view addresses the photographic process itself. Two gelatin silver prints (one in closeup, one larger scale) depict a beam of light coming through the ceiling of a dark cave and pooling on the rocky floor. Both replicate the way light penetrates the darkened space of a camera through a lens and the way our eyes operate. The third of these materialist studies is a lichen print sealed hermetically in an aluminum case, the rate of its lightless decomposition a mystery forever. Rock Wall II, by far the largest work in the exhibition at about five by six feet, culminates Elfman’s project with a visual pun. When we run up against a stone wall, our progress usually stops, but in the fullness of time, that wall, too, will crumble and we could walk through it if we had the luxury of living forever. Her stolid print of that wall—a gold-toned iron silver print no less—might or might not outlive the viewer. Time will tell.
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Christine Elfman: “All Solid Shapes Dissolve in Light” @ Euqinom Gallery through April 30, 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.