Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed

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    Against a very black backdrop are a multitude of bright yellow, white, and blue geometric shapes that are stuck together to create scientific-looking sculptures. They are a varying heights and widths and each piece is set on top of a low wooden platform.

    Catherine Wagner, History of Science VI (from the series “History of Science”), 2003; c-print; 40 × 70 inches; Courtesy of the artist.

Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed presents the monumental installation Pomegranate Wall (2000) along with stunning photographs of plant, animal, and cosmic matter from Wagner’s visual investigation of science. Taken behind closed doors of distinguished laboratories, her photographs capture the mystery and beauty of the scientific endeavor—the desire and struggle to empirically understand the nature of our being. With analytical clarity and larger-than-life scale, the works in the exhibition evoke the parallel pursuits of science and art to decipher the codes and structures of human existence though observation.

With scientific matters as her subject, Wagner adopted its tools of observation using imaging devices typically reserved for scientific study as she would her camera. Working with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and scanning electron microscopes (SEM), she captured organic materials like the cross section of an onion and the textured surface of a shark’s tooth with crisp precision. At the center of the exhibition is Wagner’s immersive installation Pomegranate Wall, a glowing 8-by-40-foot arc of photographs taken with an MRI machine. 

Made following a two-year Artist Residency Fellowship SJMA awarded Wagner in 1997, Pomegranate Wall is the culmination of her exploration into scientific institutions where her photographic documentation and use of technologies like the MRI machine act as a counterpart to scientific research. Imaged in reverse of a camera—from the inside out, rather than the outside in—cross-section scans of pomegranates resemble human cells under a microscope. Monumentally scaled and clinically backlit in Pomegranate Wall, Wagner’s images possess the authoritative weight of scientific inquiry. But their abstraction presents a paradox: these seemingly pure images are constructed. Though composed of real data, their order and classification—the modes of analyzing visual information—are fundamentally impacted by the observer.   

The crisp precision and compositional structure of Wagner’s photographs are characteristic of the scientific process. Just as a Petri dish isolates its contents for study and a microscope frames a researcher’s view, Wagner’s compositions contain, classify, and sequence visual information. A six-part typology of meteorites depicts various modes of visual analysis, including x-ray, chemical, and topographic studies, to make meaning of cosmic specimens. Obsolete three-dimensional molecular models encased within glass vitrines show historic attempts to visualize the complex relationships in order to understand our biological makeup. As alluded to in the title of Wagner’s Frankenstein series, which depict anthropomorphic looking ultra-high vacuum chambers used in state-of-the-art physics research, the tools of science shape society. As new technologies open up possibilities for a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us, Wagner’s photographs look critically at how scientific knowledge and the systems through which we interpret the essence of being are created.

Artist Biography 

Catherine Wagner was born in 1953 in San Francisco. She received her BA in 1975 and MA in 1981, both from San Francisco State University. She is the recipient of major awards, including the Rome Prize (2013–14), a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Fellowships, and the Ferguson Award. Her work is included in major museum collections including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Art, Houston; and the San José Museum of Art.

Press

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Sponsored by Casey and Jack Carsten and Tad Freese and Brook Hartzell. In-kind support provided by Anglim Gilbert Gallery and Gallery Luisotti.



Exhibition Photography

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    Pumpkin orange text on a graphite colored wall reads, "Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed." Hanging inside the gallery space is art in grey scale images of various sizes. On the left, a white arrow points into another room separated by black curtains.

    Installation view of the exhibition Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed, at the San José Museum of Art, 2018-19. Photography by © Phil Bond.

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    Pumpkin orange text on a graphite colored wall reads, "Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed." Two rectangular grey scale images hang side by side. The images show foil-wrapped scientific machines, both connected to tubing and hoses.
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    A gallery space with light grey walls and birch colored wood flooring houses 8 large-scale artworks. To the left, pumpkin orange wall text reads, "Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed." On the right, two color photographs of molecular models hang side by side.

    Installation view of the exhibition Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed, at the San José Museum of Art, 2018-19. Photography by © Phil Bond.

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    Four large flat artworks hang in a neutral gallery space with light grey walls. Two of the images on the left pair together showing colorful molecular models on glass shelves. The other two artworks are in black and white.
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    A white framed triptych hangs vertically on a light grey wall. The three framed prints exhibit black and white Petri dishes with varying specimens, creating a scientific grid design. Some dishes show an array of dots while others are a smear of black. Wall text appears to the right.
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    Pumpkin orange text on a graphite colored wall reads, "Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed." The exhibition text sits on a hexagonal pattern. To the left, an arrow points to a dark installation space where a large wall of lights awaits.

    Installation view of the exhibition Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed, at the San José Museum of Art, 2018-19. Photography by © Phil Bond.

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    A large panel wall of lights curves in a dark installation space. The 10 panels have a translucent quality to them—the lights are in rows resembling dots and circles. Two people stand in front of the panels, observing the glowing installation.

    Catherine Wagner, Pomegranate Wall, 2000. Ten light boxes with printed duratrans, fluorescent lights, metal frame; 96 × 480 inches; Collection of the San José Museum of Art. Acquired from the artist upon the completion of the San José Museum of Art artist residency fellowship, awarded to the artist in 1997; 2001.40.

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    A large panel wall of glowing lights curves in a dark installation space. The 10 panels have a translucent quality to them—the lights are in rows resembling dots and circles. The white light is reflected on the glossy wooden floor.

Creative Minds: Catherine Wagner and Glen Helfand

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    Two individuals are presenting and speaking into microphones on an elevated platform. A couple of people in the audience are recording the presentation on their phone.

    SF-based curator and critic Glen Helfand chats with artist Catherine Wagner about her works and process in the exhibition, Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed. (Friday, April 5, 2019​)