Cate Woodruff: Light Minded
January 8 - March 4, 2020
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, January 2020
It is rather good timing for Light Minded, this show of Cate Woodruff’s abstract photographs, now up at the SL Gallery. During the 60s, the period of my young adulthood, Pop and Minimalism occupied the art world center-stage but that art world was small, self-contained, and culture-wide the dominant visual language was photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson and the reportage photographers of Magnum were commanding figures, as were such studio gods such as Irving Penn and Dick Avedon, and others described as art photographers, like Elliot Erwitt and Bill Brandt, participated in that triumph. Then hello, Smartphone! And the iPhone did for photography what Amazon has done for mom ‘n pop stores and shopping malls.
Or so it has long seemed. Recently though I have seen signs of a rebirth of photo energy, hopefully signaling some widespread exhaustion with Mondo Digital and the half-life of the inescapable hordes of screen-grazers I call Scrunchies. For whatever reason I have noted an active camera eye here and there, and Cate Woodruff’s abstractions belong in what one very much hopes will be a brightening landscape.
Woodruff’s project indeed somewhat puts me in mind of such forefathers of photo abstraction as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who let it be known that he was eager to look into photographic uses for such new hi-tech lenses as those on the microscope and telescope, and Man Ray’s happy accident of the encounter of an unexposed sheet of photographic paper with developing fluid in his bathroom/dark room in his Montparnasse hotel in 1921 which gave birth to that foundational Surreal mode, the Rayograph.
Woodruff too is on the alert when it usable photographic tools and she is truly American in being self-described as a committed tinkerer, a trait she shares with that otherwise wholly dissimilar practicioner, the wizard of fly’s eye photography, M. Henry Jones. For the last ten years, the period during which she made the pieces in this show, she has been experimenting with home-made lenses, during which decade she has been creating her images by putting chosen objects into direct light, juxtaposed with reflective surfaces.
The pieces here all center on an abstract image but the ways in which they have been individually conceived is interestingly diverse. A handful are pure abstractions, one being the uninterrupted oblong, Melt, which comes across as the photographic equivalent to a Color Field painting, a whooshy Lyrical Abstraction. The circular images in Tachyon 1 and 2 are too intense to register as merely decorative, Red Tara offers a red circle on a luminous white oblong and there are two circles, one atop the other, in Gravastar but in Electron that basic circular image has been given a sculptural presence, being hung from the ceiling embedded in what appears to be a thick metal porthole.
Other pieces of view on view introduce reality, somewhat more deviously. If Color Land 3 and 8 had been printed full-frame it would have offered a number of vertical lines in various colors and width, quite simply the photographic equivalent of a hard-edged abstract canvas. As it is you spot the staples securing the photograph to the wall, along with the slight folds crumpling its surface, and these give the image the materiality that pigment will give to even the most smoothly painted canvas or paper. And Empty Space Inside An Argument, which consists of a number of cut-out shapes suspended from the ceiling, forefront’s the photographer’s ambition. Is it what Duchamp would have snootily dismissed as retinal art? Well, of course, it is – it is photography – but it’s also convincingly Duchampian in that its title is very much an element in its effect. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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