Fragments in a Dream Kitchen
There’s a feeling of longing as you look at Catherine Wagner’s photographs in the show called “Clues to Civilization.” You wish you could believe civilization was going to go on, but even the big shots in this world are trying to get away to space. Still, here you are, you’re not going to Mars, and you might as well get out of the house once in a while. But whatever you choose to immerse yourself in, it better be dark or it won’t meet the moment.
If you hadn’t lost confidence in the human endeavor, you might find yourself laughing at Wagner’s bitingly funny view of it. Instead, you feel sympathetic in the show from the first image of an empty classroom. She shows vacant chairs facing three chalk boards. Two have been erased but the third on the right is filled with the words
written hysterically large in chalk so that the letters are squished into the board, desperate for escape; like hands pressing against a car window as it is sinking in a lake; like us going down in the culture we created.
Is that description hyperbolic? Look at the floor in that classroom that is being rubbed away under a chair leg. Somebody laid the floor and built the chair, and somebody sits in the chair pulling at the floor until it comes apart. It’s the way of things. And that’s what Catherine Wagner photographs. Things. Objects. That are all like statues representing the history of civilization.
There are four series in this retrospective of conceptual images that Wagner made over the last forty years depicting what we have made and what we believe in: education, architecture, health/politics, art. The classrooms, shot in the 1980s, demonstrate obsolescence: ignorance. The architecture, like Mini’s “Dream Kitchen,” is a mockery of the form built by Disney to bring cartoons to life for tourists. Health is what we try and restore once we’ve destroyed it. The pictures are of prostheses that look more like objects of torture than relief. But Wagner sees the making of false limbs as a way of saying that our bodies are “both a resilient and a political instrument.”
The conceptual photographer has been a professor of art history at Mills College since 1979 and her last series is pictures of statuary — busts and torsos torn apart — from the Roman Empire, the fallen civilization that we are taught in our classrooms to take heed of. Though we often lament that we learn little from history. In this show, “Constantine Fragments” is perhaps the greatest image ever made about the fall of that civilization. The Emperor Constantine brought financial, military and social reforms, as well as a tolerance for Christianity to Rome, and the colossal size of the replica of him was an effort to memorialize his outsized achievements. But nothing can stop the elements from pulling even the marble apart.
Like so many of the photographs in this show, “Constantine Fragments” is an elegant warning with a dash of humor. Constantine’s intelligent face is made ironic by his finger pointing resolutely in its own little cubicle nearby. If the image had been made by Andy Warhol the erect digit would be limp. Wagner is a professor not a scold.
In this show, her next picture is of a metal leg with a sock and a shoe on it, another replica of a body part but this one is from the 20th century. It was made for a man who had lost his leg fighting in World War I. The leg was an appeasement to a ruined body, and for what? Death withers human resolutions in any century.
Because there aren’t people in her photographs you keep thinking about people, what we make, what we make of what we make. Apparently, the Capitoline Museums in Rome didn’t want Catherine Wagner to take a picture of the statue of Constantine in his transitional period. She had to soften up a guard to let her set up her four-by-five camera to get the picture. Even in 2014, the Italian officials were trying to protect the reputation of…marble? Of Constantine? Of history?
Officials? What officials? Have you seen the weather reports? Don’t make me laugh!
“Clues to Civilization” is at the Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco until August 14th.
Lucy Gray’s photography is in collections at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco and the Berkeley Art Museum in Berkeley, California. Her essays have appeared in Elle, Interview, Brick, Alta and American Stage Magazines.