Lannan Foundation, Santa Fe
July 22 – September 17, 2017
Roni Horn’s series of photographs of the river Thames—each one capturing a different texture of the opaque and oily water—creates a portrait of the river as if it were a huge sentient creature. Perhaps Horn is suggesting that the Thames is many rivers fused together as one mysterious, many-chambered beast, dense and alien, from whose depths an unlucky diver would never emerge. The images in her series Still Water (The River Thames for Example) have, as one of their conceptual layers, numbers dotting the surface of the water, and they can be traced to footnotes at the bottom of each photograph. Many of the footnotes refer to the suicides that occur in the river—as the artist says in one, the Thames becomes a “solvent for identity,” an aquatic erasure for an end to the self. And death as a subtext, sometimes overtly, sometimes obliquely stated, quietly stalks the entire exhibition of Something Fierce.
The other artists included in this often melancholy but riveting show are Christine Corday, Sharon Core, Debi Cornwall, Munson Hunt, An-My Lê, Sarah Pickering, and Victoria Sambunaris. If Horn directly investigates death by drowning, Cornwall, Pickering, and Lê interrogate the structures of war and military operations after the War on Terror began in 2001. While none of the three artists shows any actual violence as a direct result of the war, each artist addresses some of the consequences of invading Iraq: Pickering, in her series of test explosions; Lê in her images of men at the 29 Palms Marine base in California, practicing for war in their fatigues and in their maneuvers. It’s impossible to tell in Lê’s images what is the real country of future deployment and what is the relative safety of America, so similar are both desert landscapes.
The subtitle of one of Cornwall’s photographs, Mourad, French Algerian, (France), is the following—Muslim Youth Counselor, held: 2 years, 8 months, 1 day; Transferred: July 26, 2005 to France, was charged, tried and convicted. Served another year and a half in prison. French conviction reversed on appeal. In Cornwall’s image, Mourad stands in a bicycle park with his back to the camera, echoing a directive the artist received from the American military when she was given permission to photograph at Guantánamo Bay: she must never photograph anyone’s face—not that of a prisoner or any military personnel. And as Christie Davis, Program Director at Lannan Foundation, wrote in her thought-provoking essay on Something Fierce, Cornwall’s images were reviewed and edited and her processes overseen by military chaperones.
If some of the work in this show is overtly critical of American policies, there is a more subtle critique at work in Sambunaris’s series, Shifting Baselines, oddly beautiful images of oil tankers and container ships slowly plowing through the waters of Galveston Bay. In these compelling photographs, Sambunaris presents a typology of international commercial vessels, distinctly formal in nature. Yet the vessels seem to be devoid of people—as if each one was a ghost ship commanded by robots.
There are ghostly presences, too, in Hunt’s large sculptures made from the remains of dead trees, and death also haunts the work of Corday in the chemical elements she uses in her paintings and sculpture—substances such as iron, carbon, silicon, and copper—which are some of the remains from the heart of a dying star, exploded into space and ultimately laying the foundation for our planet, as well as our own bodies. Core plumbs the depths of the still-life paintings of the early American artist Raphaelle Peale (1771-1825) in her hyperreal and impeccable photographs that replicate Peale’s work in order to reinvent the genre of still life for herself. The processes behind the work in Something Fierce are indeed extremely intense and highly focused, mirroring various “unseen logics” in a rigorous merging of craft at the service of concept. What results in the art of these eight women are twice-told tales generated from the union of Techne and Eros.