Catherine Wagner: Paradox Observed

Friday, April 5, 2019Sunday, August 18, 2019
Curated by Kathryn Wade, curatorial associate

Catherine Wagner, Pomegranate Wall, 2000. Ten light boxes with printed duratrans, florescent 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.

Catherine Wagner (born 1953, San Francisco) has an analytic eye—an impulse to examine and organize information. Like a scientific researcher, she imposes order on a chaotic world. Photographing within institutions of learning—classrooms, laboratories, and museums and archives—she isolates and reclassifies objects, abstracting them from their original meaning. This exhibition presents Wagner’s monumental installation Pomegranate Wall (2000) in SJMA’s permanent collection, the glowing 8-by-40-foot arc of photographs taken with an MRI machine and made during an artist residency fellowship at the Museum. Shown with black-and-white photographs of plant and animal matter from Wagner’s visual investigation of science laboratories, the immersive installation explores life from the inside out.  

Wagner’s interest in science began in the classroom, not her own, but while traveling to schools across the country where she photographed lecture halls, biology labs, and classrooms. For Wagner, these sites of learning embody society’s aspirations and values; blackboards, science experiments, and empty desks possess the markings of human inquiry and the highly structured systems through which knowledge is developed and conveyed. For her later series “Art & Science: Investigating Matter,” Wagner gained access to professional laboratories where the artist’s photographic documentation acts as a counterpart to scientific research, focusing on its tools and methods of analysis through compositional use of isolation, classification, and sequence.

With science as a subject matter, Wagner adopted its tools of observation too, using medical imaging devices as she would her camera. In 1997, she was awarded a two-year fellowship from SJMA to work with technology. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines and scanning electron microscopes (SEM), Wagner captured organic materials like fruits and vegetables, and animal bone with crisp precision and analytical clarity. Imaged in reverse of a camera—from the inside out, rather than the outside in—MRI scans of pomegranates resemble human cells. Monumentally scaled and clinically backlit in Pomegranate Wall, Wagner’s images possess the authoritative weight of science. Abstracted from the laboratory setting, however, pomegranate specimens become a kind of artifact of humanity. They call attention to scientific technologies that allow us to visualize the microscopic and molecular—the fundamental components of life that are not perceivable to the human eye. And, along with Wagner’s other laboratory photographs, they draw parallels between scientific and artistic investigation that attempt to decipher the codes and invisible structures of human life.

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. 


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