On the Conditions of Production of the Color Curl Works [including the Three-Color Curl (2008–), Six-Color Curl (2009–2010), Black Curl (2010–), White Curl (2013), RA4 Contact Print Works (2014–), Inverted RA4 Contact Print Works (2016–), and Cross-Contaminated Inverted RA4 Contact Print Works]
Material Conditions and Production:
The works in the color curls series are photograms produced by curling, or rolling, sheets of color photographic paper onto a metal wall, using large strip magnets to support the paper during exposure. The paper is unrolled approximating the reach of the artist’s body with his arms outstretched, and is then cut, placed on the wall, and supported with the magnets. The cut sheets of paper are larger than either the enlarger can fully expose, or the wall of the darkroom can accommodate, thus the paper must be curled and bowed in order to fit into the exposure field (the effect is something like a ribbon that has been gathered or cinched together appearing almost ruffled). The magnets are kept in the positions in which they were last used, thus each new exposure is a compromise with the one before it. Using a horizontal color photographic enlarger, the photographic paper is exposed to each of the primary subtractive colors (Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow) in succession. Use of this system of color creates the field of all possible colors in the interaction between the primary subtractive colors (for example, when Magenta and Yellow cross, the result is Red; or when Yellow and Cyan cross, the result is Green). The various intensities of those colors is based on several material factors, among them the angle of incidence of the projected light in relation to the surface of the paper and the intermixing of the varied intensities built up with exposure to each color. This is what causes the wide array of tone and shifts in hue, which in turn constitute an infinite number of possible colors.
In the case of the Three Color Curl works, each work is exposed to Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow respectively, and between each exposure the magnets are removed and replaced, allowing the paper to curl in different ways. This is all done in total darkness. In the case of Six Color Curl works, the paper is exposed to each color, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow, twice (in the order of CMYYMC), constituting six independent exposures, with the magnets shifted between each exposure. In the case of Black Curl works, the paper is exposed to Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow without shifting the magnets between exposures. The color “banding” in the Black Curl works is due to environmental effects (for example, the paper shifting under its own weight between exposures, the currents of air produced by the HVAC system, or general vibrations in the room), and the inability of the magnets to fully support the weight and contours of the paper (the magnets are put under excessive stress because of the curling paper, which causes them to creep or migrate during the exposures). The Black Curl works use this movement of the photographic paper to produce the colors that appear in the work. In short, the Black Curl works are not only the result of the tension between the size of the paper, the confines of the darkroom, and the artist’s own body, but also exploit the effects of the architectural infrastructure (i.e., the HVAC system, building vibration, etc.), which is expressed through the registration (or misregistration) of the colors. If the printing circumstance were “ideal,” or not subject to incidental environmental effects, the works would be black and white (because the accumulation of cyan, magenta, and yellow is pure black), the bands of color are similar to the effects of misregistration of the printing plates in offset printing. The colors on the work’s surface act as an index of this network of tensions within the printing process. In the case of the White Curl works, each work is exposed to the same conditions and colors as the Black Curl works, yet the paper is compressed to half its length on the magnetic wall causing larger portions of the paper to remain blocked from light due to the tight compression of the curls during the exposure. Any creases, dents, or tears in the paper are a result of handling the paper in complete darkness and are therefore part of the work.
The RA4 Contact Print works are made using an aging, large-format, color photographic processor that jams, stalls, or has parts fail while in use, resulting in a Black Curl work inside the processor being additionally exposed to various darkroom lights while in repair, which casts an image of the interior of the processor onto the surface of the print. The dysfunctional state of the processor creates a variety of effects, each of which relate to a variable in the production of photographs, for example, the chemistry is effected because of an error in the thermostat, the development time is effected because of failures in the drive train of the rollers, and so on. In the case of the Cross-Contaminated RA4 Contact Print works, the processor has jammed while the photograph is in the fixative bath, which causes photographic bleach fixative to come into contact with the print during its exposure, this traces the handling of the work during exposure in the form of hand prints, while simultaneously contaminating the photographic developer bath in the processor which results in shifts in color and density (lightness or darkness). The diptych Inverted RA4 Contact Print works follow the same procedure, with two photographic sheets exposed together and processed face-to-face. The sheets of photographic paper slip and become offset within the processor while the chemistry trapped between the papers create a mirrored image in the final work.
The works are then mounted in frames made from either brass or aluminum with various standard finishes for the industrial application of the metals (polished, sand blasted, rubbed, brushed, and so on), which further delineates each series.
The works are titled with the number of different color exposures (e.g., if the paper is exposed three times, the resulting work is called a Three Color Curl, because each exposure is one of the primary subtractive colors), the abbreviations of colors the paper is exposed to (e.g., CMY), the number of magnets used to support the photographic paper (e.g., Five Magnet), the location where the print was made (e.g., Irvine, California), the date the print was made (e.g., March 25, 2010), the type of paper used (e.g., Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C), the emulsion number of the paper (e.g., Em. No. 165-021), and the studio’s inventory number for the work (e.g., 00410). Standard conventions for medium and dimensions of the work are used after this title. The date attributed to the work is the year of its first exhibition, which is separate from the production date included in the work’s title. A final description of the work, for example one that would appear on a wall didactic in an exhibition space, might read:
Three Color Curl (CMY/Five Magnet: Irvine, California, March 25, 2010, Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 165-021, 04410), 2011
Color photographic paper
50 x 111 inches
Three Color Curl [number of color exposures] (CMY [abbreviations of colors used] /Five Magnet [number of magnets]: Irvine, California [city of production], March 25, 2010 [date of production], Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C [brand and type of photographic paper], Em. No. 165-021 [emulsion number of photographic paper], 04410 [studio inventory number]), 2011 [date of first exhibition]
Color photographic paper [medium]
50 x 111 inches [dimensions]
Other example titles
Black Curl, noting the descriptive title:
Black Curl (CMY/Five Magnet: Irvine, California, January 2, 2010, Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 165-021, 08910), 2011
RA4 Contact Print Curl, noting the descriptive title, and the make and model of the processor imaged on the work:
RA4 Contact Print [Black Curl (MCY/Six Magnet: Los Angeles, California, August 29, 2013, Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 199-023, 21613), Kreonite KM IV 5225 RA4 Color Processor, Ser. No. 00092174], 2014
Cross-Contaminated Curl, noting the descriptive title, the name and type of bleach fixative, and the make and model of the processor imaged on the work:
Cross-Contaminated RA4 Contact Print [Black Curl (9:6/YMC/Six Magnet: Los Angeles, California, January 24, 2014, Fuji Color Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 101-006, Kodak Ektacolor RA Bleach-Fix and Replenisher, Cat. No. 847 1484, 05714), Kreonite KM IV 5225 RA4 Color Processor, Ser. No. 00092174]), 2014
Inverted RA4 Contact Print / Processor Stall (YM: Los Angeles, California, November 22, 2017; Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 152-017; Kodak Ektacolor RA Bleach-Fix and Replenisher; Kreonite KM IV 5225 RA4 Color Processor, Ser. No. 00092174; 42517)
Cross-Contaminated Inverted RA4 Contact Print / Processor Stall (YMC: Los Angeles, California, June 1, 2017; Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 141-044; Kodak Ektacolor RA Bleach-Fix and Replenisher; Kreonite KM IV 5225 RA4 Color Processor, Ser. No. 00092174; 21917)
—Walead Beshty, Los Angeles, 2009/2016
General Issues Pertaining to the Production of the Photogram works
On the Use of the Terms “Image” and “Picture”:
“Images” have no sides, nor dimensionality. They have no back or front. “Image” (imago) means “likeness,” thus it is a relational term defining a relationship between two things. There is no such thing as an image on its own; it carries with it, in some form, that which it is meant to be a likeness of. The term is conceptual; it is an abstract idea that describes a provisional understanding of two objects’ abstract relationship to one another, and this duality is always present whether it is explicit or implied, as in “this is an image of…” or “this image…” (the latter relying on tacitly asserted previous comparisons of image to referent, i.e. when there is no qualification, the use of the term assumes the obviousness of what it is a likeness of). In other words, images are immaterial or rather, relational, they are not a class of things but a provisional assertion about a thing. The one thing one can say for sure about an image is that it explicitly is not what it is a likeness of. The term “image” refers to a concept; it refers to a relation between things and is not a thing itself. Images have no size or shape. They are theoretical objects, not material ones. The term “picture” refers to a subset of “images” and only describes representational qualities, not the material existence of an object in the real world. A “picture” is an organizational logic used to produce a likeness, or image; it is a form, or convention for producing a likeness, and it is always synthetic, whereas an image can be made by chance (as in a fossil, or other impression or likeness made by natural means). Thus, “pictures” have no specific scale; they can be any size, exist in any material, and still be the same picture as long as they have the same pictorial form. A photograph reproduced on a billboard and as an ad in a magazine would be called the same “image/picture” despite the fact that the way they are produced, the way they are trafficked, the relationship to a viewer, their context, and the materials the “image/picture” is contained within are completely different. Despite this, photographs are often treated simply as “images” or “pictures”, and the terms are used interchangeably to detrimental effect.
The result of using the terms “image,” “picture,” and “photograph” interchangeably is that the material of the photograph is ignored. The photogram works began out of an attempt to integrate these dual understandings of photographic depictions—by using the paper itself to define the forms—and to ignore the division between “image” and material so as to open up other options for the making of photographs. Depending on the size of the paper, the forms on its surface will be different (whether they are curled, folded, or crumpled), because each piece of paper will be manipulatable only in ways that are specific to it. The weight, tooth, and scale of the paper directly impact the forms that appear on the surface of the paper. Unlike the “picture” that adheres to Renaissance perspectival rules (based on the construct of homogeneous and infinite Cartesian space), these pictures—because the medium that receives the images is bent—are anisotropic. Anisotropic images are irregular in every direction, unlike the homogeneous space of Renaissance perspectival form, and they do not indicate stable relations of scale or position because they assert a logic that is specific to their confines, thus they cannot be used to indicate an order to be applied to the circumstances outside of their own production, i.e., they cannot propose to “map” or “order” the world outside of their boundaries. Thus, the difference between what is represented on the surface of the photograph and the photographic material is removed (unlike a normal photograph, where the picture is inscribed on the surface of the paper, each component kept conceptually separate). Furthermore, the paper acts like a conventional negative (incidentally, the first negatives were paper-based), casting an image of itself onto itself; the negative and the photographic paper are one and the same. This causes some instances where a literal fold or curl in the paper is echoed by a form describing that fold or curl, while in other instances, this produces shapes that are not directly manifest in the topography of the paper. In the instances where the form shown on the surface is discontinuous with the surface the form is on, the paper has served as a “negative” that produces an image of itself on its surface. It could be said that the paper cast a shadow of itself onto itself, and because the paper is photographic, the shadow could be fixed in place.
On Composition, Uniqueness, and Difference:
The exposure process for the photogram works must either occur within total darkness (in the case of the color photograms) or under red light (in the case of the black and white works), but regardless, in both instances the producer of the work (the artist) cannot see what is being made as it is being made. That is to say, the producer/artist is working blind within the parameters set up before hand. The producer/artist therefore becomes another instrument in the process (reduced to labor, to a body, to a unit of measure, equivalent to the paper or print processor) and not a conscious creator of the work while the work is being physically produced. This contrasts with the normal way that works are produced: for example in the production of a painting, the artist/producer is consciously constructing the work—thinking conceptually—at the same time she/he applies the paint—laboring—hence the artist/producer is making informed choices during the production of the work and is changing the rules as she/he works. In the case of these works, composition in the classical sense is impossible. Once exposed to light, the paper is processed in a RA4 wide format color photographic processor (in the case of color works) or in baths of chemistry (in the case of black-and-white works). Since there is no negative and no projected image, the works are unique, and because of this and the chance operations imbedded within the process, they are completely impossible to reproduce in any other circumstance. At the same time, because the paper is a standardized readymade object and operates both as a thing being imaged and the material that is receiving the image, each work is ostensibly (by the conventions of photographic image production) a photograph of the same thing—the paper itself. In other words, it is a “print” of a standardized object, and thus all of the photograms are prints of nearly identical negatives (or negatives whose differences would be quite difficult to argue is significant). It is only the minor variations in conditions—rather than the “original” (the photographic paper) that is being “represented”—that account for the differences between prints of the same series. The difference between works is constituted in the incidental shifts between moments of production, not in the uniqueness of the object being imaged or the means of that imaging. In conventional photographs, such differences between prints would be considered at best issues of connoisseurship, but unimportant in assessing the meaning or historical import of a photograph i.e. it is common to assess the quality of a photograph independent of the quality of a print. These variations in circumstance are not “significant,” meaning they do not “signify” in any specific way. They do not indicate a meaningful distinction between the circumstances or objects they represent. The photogram works are unique, but essentially equivalent to one another, much as every industrial object produced in series (from a run of photographic prints to cereal boxes) is unique as an object and different from all other objects, even if this difference is insignificant or deemphasized by the way that object is conventionally used.
The term “abstraction” is generally misused in art to refer to non-figurative work; this is a careless application of the term, one which is patently misleading and causes a great deal of confusion. Any work referred to as “abstract” is, by the application of that term alone, set apart from the world, isolated from the world of objects, and construed as having a “meta” relationship to the objects around it. The term “abstraction” names an interpretation of the object, not a characteristic of the object. In other words, one can claim an object is “abstracted” from some external circumstance, but the object on its own cannot make such a claim. Thus, the problem with the term is two-fold: it is first misapplied within an art context to describe works that are non-figurative and, more insidiously, it ascribes an aspect of interpretation to the object, turning an application of the work into an ontological characteristic of the work. In this, the problems associated with the conventional use of the term abstraction are similar to those described above for the terms “image” and “picture.” In each case, the term describes a relationship between objects, and in the misuse of each, a relational term becomes a definitive term, i.e. the thing the object is related to is either assumed or completely ignored.
Despite the photograms being non-figurative, they are not abstractions, because they are not a schematization of some aspect of the world that surrounds them, but rather are defined by their concrete existence. They are not “of” or “about” some other thing, rather they are connected to the world by being one thing in the world, not by depicting the world. There is no source material that is being “referred” to in the production of the work. These are not reformations of some original object or phenomena, but rather are a part of the phenomena they themselves describe. Pictorial photographs are abstractions (because pictures are images, and images imply a relation of one object to another in a form of significatory dependence). They are “abstracted” from some element of the world and turned into a two-dimensional form. They obey an arbitrary set of conventions for the translation of the three-dimensional to the two-dimensional (since we do not really see in Renaissance perspective, but in a curved hermetic space). In a normal pictorial photograph, the referent of the image is missing. For example, if someone takes a photograph of a clock, the exact moment and object referred to in the image will always be absent, never to be reclaimed. Even if the object is present, the moment the photograph was made is missing, thus the photograph serves as evidence of something absent. This is the problem in the widespread application of the terms “picture” and “image;” they emphasize what they are not and deemphasize the conditions of reception of the work. These works do not refer to something that is absent; they do not “represent” some place or moment. They are dependent on an infinite procession of moments, when production is material (as when the work was generated in the darkroom) and immaterial (through the succession of uses the work is put to, in its exhibition, display, and distribution). Any standard, lens-based, figurative photograph is necessarily “abstract” in the technical sense of the term if we describe it based on what it carries a likeness of. Since this separation of sign from signified does not exist in the photogram works, they are never true abstractions, regardless of their appearance. This type of art object should be referred to as “concrete” and “literal,” as the viewer is always presented with the referent and the image at the same time. They are concrete photographs (with a lower case “c”), not abstract or pictorial photographs.
—Walead Beshty, Annandale-on-Hudson/Los Angeles, 2008/2010/2015
Revised text from Walead Beshty: Natural Histories, Zurich, Switzerland: JRP|Ringier, 2014, 2nd ed.