Arts » Visual Art

In two exhibitions, artists resolve memory with media

Mark Bradford at Nasher; Terrains of Absence at Flanders

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Instagram pictures kind of creep me out. They're attractive at first glance because they resemble the aging snapshots in my parents' photo albums. But I know that the visual filters are just algorithms, and they immediately seem insincere, mediated, branded. I hear Ron Popeil shouting "Now with 50 percent more nostalgia!" They should call the app Fetishgram.

I'm constantly fighting for my memories' integrity with the media in which my memories are stored. The stakes are high. Our memory is how we, as individuals, persist from moment to moment. And in two current exhibitions in the Triangle, artists address how the past interpenetrates the present.

Although small black-and-white photography by Ian F. G. Dunn and Jerome De Perlinghi takes up the front of Terrains of Absence in Raleigh's Flanders Gallery, Durham-based Mark Iwinski's work comprises more than half of the show. Iwinski works in two modes in this exhibit. In 12 photographs, he holds a transparency of a vintage picture between his camera's eye and a modern-day subject, literally superimposing the past upon the present. In most of this work, the old image shows a building that used to stand on the spot and reveals how its footprint persists, physically and socially, in the current landscape.

Crucially, Iwinski's hand is always visible in the frame, locating him in the landscape and denying any computer-manipulated illusionism. In one image titled "Fairview," he holds a faded transparency of the Duke Mansion, which was razed in the 1920s, overtop of the south face of the old Liggett & Myers building on Duke Street in Durham, near the Amtrak station.

Other images touch on Iwinski's personal history. "Ancestors II" shows his grandmother, circa 1917, standing at the curb in front of her house in Milwaukee. One of the carriage-like wheels of her parked car matches up with the back wheel of a Chevy Crossover parked in front of the sprawling modern-day house. Iwinski's family photographs document his attempts to connect to a lost past.

A different kind of disappearing architecture—old-growth forests—figures in Iwinski's other mode of work. Laden with paper and inks, he hikes into woods such as the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina, finds massive fallen hemlocks and chestnuts and takes prints of their stump and trunk faces.

In his most compelling prints, Iwinski eschewed inks for the natural tannins that seep from the sawed-flat stump face. To discourage predators, trees, when damaged, release a brown, acidic compound. The prints, which should change over time as the tannin interacts with the paper, look transitory and ghosted. One titled "'Where there are mountains, there are Chestnuts...' Castanea Dentate," taken on July 17, carries pencil notations of the tree's GPS coordinates and an arrow indicating north. The empty center of the print signifies the disease that killed the tree from within.

Despite their inviting clarity, Iwinski's photographs and tree prints register loss. They are of gone things, after all. But location persists. By focusing on place, he establishes new psychic mappings, invoking what's been lost to convey how the interaction between personal and social realms brings memory delightfully—and messily—into the present.

Mark Bradford more explicitly references maps in a four-artwork status report of a show at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art. In the years since he was featured as part of the 2007 Nasher exhibition Street Level, the Los Angeles artist's star has risen. His large-scale wall hangings, layered with billboard papers, advertising posters, newsprint and cordage, have become ubiquitous in the art world.

These layers acquire a dense, geographical texture and appearance. Some of Bradford's materials refer directly to his childhood, but once critics started pigeonholing him with a simplistic autobiographical interpretation, he moved on, determined to stave off this kind of branding. There won't be a Bradford Instagram filter.

A single sculptural piece, "Soccer Ball Bag 4" (2011), echoes Bradford's childhood differently. Fastened to the wall, a nylon mesh bag holds about 20 soccer balls that have been collaged with paper to resemble huge turtle eggs. It's easy to imagine Bradford, who stands 6-foot-8, constantly being told that he should play sports as a youth. The piece both reflects this pressure to fit a stereotype and protests, with smart, crude humor, the reduction of male identity to a scrotum and a game.

The roughly 8-foot by 11-foot wall hanging "Red Painting" (2009) is the highlight. What a chance to see Bradford's vast vocabulary of distress: He rips, bleaches, paints, wads and belt-sands this surface. Compositionally, "Red Painting" features an unpatterned tessellation of red and white triangles. Newsprint patches, however, imply organic forms in the lattice, as if you were gazing at the sky through a canopy of blossoming trees.

Bradford's work rewards moving around the gallery to view it, and the Nasher has given it the requisite space. Get an overall sense of the composition of "Red Painting" from 50 feet away. Then walk up to the piece as close as the guard will allow to really scrutinize the surface from the proximity of its maker. It's from there that you can tap into Bradford's memory, imaginatively re-creating his process once you see the marks of his handiwork. Something of the experiences that Bradford has abstracted can be brought back into the present through a viewer's agency.

And there's not an app for that.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Kill your filter."

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