When California photographer David Maisel was an artist in residence at Los Angeles' Getty Research Institute in 2007, he happened upon a trove of materials that would form the basis of an enigmatic new project. Thousands of x-rays taken of the Getty's massive holdings of classical sculptures and ancient objects from around the world, taken for research and preservation purposes, impressed upon Maisel the possibility of a unique rephotographic project.
Selecting volumes of examples from that institution, and thereafter from the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Maisel used these x-rays as the basis of new color photographs that convey an ineffable force. Now Maisel's first exhibition of this work, History's Shadow, is on view at Haines Gallery in San Francisco.
The ambiguously affecting qualities of these images result from accretions of unique conditions. Technological and optical processes (x-rays, photography) penetrate hand-wrought objects from the distant past (sculptures, devotional figures, vessels), compressing their dimensionality, materiality, and history into one numinous field. Interior details such as armatures and nails vividly glow; darker voids maintain zones of tenebrous mystery.
Maisel's work has sought to contend with the problems and possibilities of conveying enormity (in the sense of both scale and tragic scope). His aerial photographs of human-impacted sites, including The Lake Project and Oblivion, use the language of color abstraction to interrogate landscape traditions. More recently, Library of Dust depicted copper canisters that held the cremated remains of state-hospital patients who were never claimed by relatives or friends. These containers, which had been flooded in their storage area, had bloomed with intensely hued mineral deposits, creating vivid but somber markers for abandoned souls.
With History's Shadow, the x-rays presented a matrix of images that superseded their art-historical value and seemed to call out across centuries and dimensions. Of this work, Maisel says,
"I view these x-rays as expressions of the artists and artisans who created the original objects, however many centuries ago; as vestiges and indicators of the societies that produced these works; and as communications from the past, expressing immutable qualities that somehow remain constant over time. What do these works of art from past cultures have to teach us about our current point in human history, or about our relationship to the past, largely formed through archaeology and transmission of cultural objects across national borders? The x-ray provides a filter and a means (much as perception itself is both filter and means) to read the intrinsic properties of these works, the trace elements with which these objects are imbued. They encourage an understanding—made through feeling and art, as well as science and reason—that both spans and collapses time."
On Tuesday, April 26th, Haines Gallery will host a conversation with David Maisel and Julian Cox, Founding Curator of Photography for the Fine Arts Museums and Chief Curator at the deYoung Museum, San Francisco.
5:30–7:30 pm, discussion to begin at 6:00 pm
(please RSVP to 415.397.8114)
David Maisel: History's Shadow
Through 4 June, 2011
Haines Gallery, 49 Geary Street, San Francisco