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September 17 - November 2, 2002 at the Newspace Gallery, Hollywood

by Suvan Geer

“As Is, Aggregate,” 2000, digital
print on aluminum, 24” x 30”.

“As Is, Red,” 2000, digital
print on aluminum, 24” x 30”.

“As Is, Green Spill," 2000, digital
print on aluminum, 24” x 30”.

There has always been a deep, sensual pleasure and haunting mystery to Connie Zehr’s sprawling installations of shaped sand. Her new photographic work has those same characteristics. Perhaps it’s because the artist is using the camera to share with us her own intimate and intensely focused view of earth as a wondrous material and remarkably allusive sight.

Zehr’s large photographs are spare, abstract images where color and shape dominate and space is enticingly ephemeral. While those who have seen the artist’s carefully poured-out sand installations of geometric perfection and gravity-shifting accident may recognize some of the forms in the photographs from their genesis in past installations, remarkably that recognition feels incidental, even extraneous, to the reason these pictures exist. Rather than functioning as straight documentation, these images are clearly meant to stretch the mind and eye as they gently smooth the hard reality of crushed rock into a purely visual exploration of perception.

Each photograph does its own kind of optic dance for the camera. Nesting pink and orange circles seem to float, optically detached yet sensually rooted to a night sky of flickering blackness in Incidents, Detail, Red and Garnet Mound. Here the color’s vibrancy and its geometric perfection on the large print’s scale play delightful visual games of tag with flatness and texture. The result is an odd sense of visual instability. As in many of the other images in the show where the perfect geometry of the form is only slightly betrayed by the sand’s texture, we don’t know what we are looking at. There is something familiar about it, but something seductively strange as well.

As Is, Aggregate shows two relaxed cone shapes, color shifting from browns to golds and glittering greens against a lavender ground. It’s like looking at two tightly woven Chinese sun hats resting on a smooth floor at sunset. More an abstract painting of pure shape and light than a straight photograph of two piles of aggregate, Zehr uses the photographic image the same way she installs colored sand, to make real things look less real. Vision is key to stable balance. Because Zehr’s images shift visual scale and flatten space using the fidelity of a photograph that supposedly mimics reality, we can’t quite get our bearings. So we fall into a de-intellectualized space of wonder or just looking. It’s the same visual shift that happens around her installations, but in these pictures it is even further detached, framed and concentrated.

Key to the image’s sensuality is their surface. Zehr chose digital rather than a traditional photographic printing process in order to exploit the visual possibilities inherent in a new technology that spits outs minute particles of discreet color that have to intermix visually in order to be seen as solid. Somewhat akin to the phantom color effect in paintings by Bridget Riley, the result is a subtle colorpoint-to-colorpoint juxtaposition that visually makes solid colors so lively that even the print’s surface appears more tangible.

And what color it is. Rich orange-reds, turquoise that jumps into space and blacks that seem to knock a hole into the cosmos. While digital printing would allow the artist to alter the color she has not. She chooses instead to simply reproduce the remarkable colors of the sands with which she routinely works. For the artist the colors in the digitally printed photographs are closer to nature than what is possible with standard printing techniques. Not only does the digital color capture the pure, unusual intensity of the powdered garnet and other sands, but the ink dispersal also seems to mimic the way those small flecks of stone and crystal fragment and play with light.

For many viewers installations are frustratingly rooted in their site. No artifact or documentary picture captures the ephemeral work’s insights or experience. Zehr, with her willingness to look at new technology as a high tech kind of simulated sand painting, has made a leap. Her documentation has become a poetry of its own.