When Seattle photographer Chris Engman spoke recently of finding a heavy-equipment operator he could work with, he wasn’t referring to digging a trench or reshaping a driveway. The project he had in mind was artistic, building several huge gravel piles to photograph, then rotating the piles 135 degrees, and shooting them again against a drastically different background. The resulting photographic diptych, Dust to Dust, is one of a dozen or so stark, provoking, and surprising images of similarly labor-intensive constructions that explore the artist’s preoccupations with time, relativity, and illusion. KUOW art reviewer Gary Faigin joins us with his comments.
Take "Equivalence," for example, one of the high points of the exhibit. A striking 3 x 4 foot color print of an arid Eastern Washington prairie, it features a complex picture within a picture, a recurring theme in Engman’s work. The project began by Engman constructing a huge cross-shaped wooden framework almost twice the artist’s height, a collection of thin wooden strips dividing up 15 window-like views. This set up was photographed on a cloudy day, and then re-photographed in exactly the same spot on a clear day some time later. Only in the second shot one can no longer see through the open framework; instead, the openings have all been filled with the images from the first shooting session, carefully pasted in and positioned so they match up exactly with the existing view.
So precise is Engman with his intervention (his pieces also question the utility of work) that we’re only vaguely aware that something is not quite right – at first. Then we notice the clouds in the framed view suddenly being replaced by the clear sky outside the frame. Engman has also included other cues as to the visual jujitsu underway, particularly in the foreground, where a piece of extra lumber leans casually against what should be thin air inside the framework, coming to rest on a piece of clear sky. Not only does the board stay up, it casts a shadow on the sky it rests on, the shadow continuing down what is in fact a flat photographic surface and not the hundreds of feet of receding prairie that it appears to be.
Taking the back-and-forth a step further, Engman has chosen not to repair a bit of broken stripping at the upper corner of his construction so the crinkled edge of the photograph itself meets the actual surrounding, while the cracked wooden bits dangle alongside. This is precisely the sort of real-world messiness that is designed out of purely digital manipulation, and it gives the image a distinctive, quirky spin; nothing up my sleeves – or is there? The magician shows you how the trick is done, but it works just the same.
It took me repeated viewings to sort out the several intersecting worlds within the image, and I’m not sure I’m done. A similar photograph, entitled "Three Moments," takes the picture-within-a-picture idea one step further. Set in an even more barren wasteland, one that would do nicely for a Biblical drama or post-apocalyptic movie, Engman has inserted a billboard-like, nine-panel photograph of the same location, again exactly aligned with its surroundings. What’s different here is the photographed view includes within it another upright photographic panel, set at right angles to the first, and equally seamless in its integration with the environment. The picture obviously required three separate trips to the same location to create the two mounted photos, and Engman has purposely complicated the deal by the careful inclusion of contradictory shadows, easily overlooked but crucial to the effect. The foreground panel casts a shadow on the ground behind and beyond, and because the panel is set slightly up on rocks, we can see where the shadow starts and then suddenly stops, crossing the boundary between what exists now – the panel in the desert – and what existed before, the desert without the panel. The background panel is set up on even higher rocks, and casts its disappearing shadow in the same way, only going in the opposite direction, at what was clearly a different time of day.
So, the final image is an impossible composite, straightforward and yet unresolved, shifting before our eyes as we notice new and perplexing details. Like the process of perception itself, what seems to be simple is anything but. Engman is showing us that our awareness of the visual world is based on habitual assumptions and educated guesses, mental gymnastics that are far more imperfect than we like to imagine.
Other images in the exhibition pursue a similar theme – what you think you see vs. what is actually there - in a somewhat different way. I particularly like "Object, Shadow," which features a perfectly square, black shadow on a white salt pan desert, on one level a goof on early abstract painting like the black-on- white squares of Kasimir Malevich. More to the point, the black shadow exists at once both in depth and flat like a sticker, and it appears symmetrical even though it actually widens as it goes back. Engman includes in the picture the method of its construction, a bizarre, trapezoidal frame that is anything but square but nonetheless casts the shadow of a square, at a precisely calculated moment at a particular calculated angle.
None of this is new, of course, especially in painting; distorted images which read correctly from one favored angle were the inspiration for an entire sub-movement in art as far back as the 18th Century, and M. C. Escher made the subject of reality versus illusion the theme of his entire graphic output; Magritte depicted paintings which continued into landscapes. But photographs have an authority, a ring of truth, all their own, and Engman carefully exploits our blind trust in the camera image to give his reworkings a sharper edge.
I found other images in the show which dealt with shadows and sequence less engaging, but I was blown away by the photograph "Senescence," a picture dealing with age and decrepitude. Two sequential photographs feature an industrial yard somewhere in a city. In the first image there is a carefully stacked pile of several dozen short, fat logs, seen end on. In the second image the logs have been carved into hundreds of sections and reassembled into exactly the same pile, now held together with tight ropes. The effect is –surprisingly - very Portrait of Dorian Gray, with the sections between wood chunks reading as wrinkles. It’s a fascinating, scary picture - time made palpable - and what’s worse, personal – a sort of post-modern memento mori, and a quintessential Northwest image to boot.