November 14 - January 21, 2021
From the gallery:
“Lora Reynolds is pleased to announce Upwelling, an exhibition of cyanotypes by Meghann Riepenhoff—the artist’s first presentation at the gallery.
Meghann Riepenhoff makes her images with an antiquated photographic printing process—no camera, no lens—and thinks of her work as a collaboration with the ocean, the landscape, and precipitation. Her dynamic cyanotypes take on varying shades of blue and give the impression of water in motion—droplets that run before amassing into sheets; waves that swell, crash, and spray fine mist; snowdrifts that grow in icy storms. Much of Riepenhoff’s work is large enough to feel immersive, overwhelming—her biggest pieces can even recall the apocalyptic surf at Nazaré.
The cyanotype process, developed in the mid-19th century, was initially used to reproduce technical drawings (i.e., blueprints). No more than a year after cyanotypes were first developed, Anna Atkins started using the technique to make photograms of marine plant life and soon compiled them into a book that became the first publication illustrated with images made with light. In a nod to her photographic foremother, Riepenhoff adopted Atkins’s materials and updated her methodology. In a darkroom, she coats paper with a homemade solution of light-sensitive iron salts. Once dry, she packs it into light-tight boxes, carries it into the field, and unfurls it in sunlight. As water washes over her paper—whether from the sea, a lake, rainfall, or a snowstorm—each piece continuously changes in appearance as it simultaneously exposes, processes, and fixes. UV light initiates the exposure; water arrests it.
The prints in this show come from two bodies of work, each named for geological phenomena. Littoral Drift refers to how sand continually moves along a shoreline when waves approach at an angle (sediment is always on the move—it never stays long at any given point on the coast). Riepenhoff makes this work on the shores of beaches and lakes, letting waves break across her photosensitive paper. She might scatter sand or gravel over the surface to selectively slow its exposure. Sometimes she buries sections of a piece as a hedge against the wind. When conditions are too rough, waves can rip her oversized prints in half or draw them out to sea so far that surfers have to drag them back to the shallows for her. On occasion, children and dogs frolic across her cyanotypes as they lie on the beach (a normal exposure lasts about four hours). She describes the drama of making this work as “chaos with a dash of control.” Although she speaks of collaborating with the landscape, she acknowledges mostly needing to surrender to it.
Ecotone, on the other hand, describes an area of transition between two adjacent biomes (e.g., the marshland between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, the in-between space where tundra and taiga meet and overlap). While Riepenhoff makes Littoral Drift pieces on beaches with waves, she makes Ecotone works with precipitation. She drapes them on ferns or branches, under trees, across stone walls, over the ridge of a doghouse roof—and waits for snow/sleet/rain/fog to wash/pile/pool/trickle or otherwise condensate and combine with the volatile chemistry embedded in her paper. The title of each work gives detailed information about when and where Riepenhoff made it and how it was interacting with the built or unbuilt environment. Her highly specific titles reinforce the idea that each cyanotype is a fingerprint of a singular time and place.
Because Riepenhoff is thinking about time on a geological scale, about how the Earth is continually changing (even if most of these shifts are undetectable without proper instrumentation), and about mankind’s attempts at controlling the natural world—she deliberately only partially fixes her prints. Close observers of her work have reported watching salt crystals grow on pieces she made in the sea. If exposed to direct sunlight for extended periods of time, even when framed, her images can undergo subtle shifts in tone. Likewise, putting them in a darker space can regenerate their pigmentation. Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes are living and changing—just like all photographs, artworks, people, land, water, all things—but rather than waging a futile war against their mutability and eventual death, she embraces impermanence as a critical conceptual touchstone for her practice. While conservators have assured her the cyanotypes will last beyond our lifetimes, Riepenhoff says “the final state of the work is change.” These cyanotypes are emblems of surrendering control, of acknowledging and respecting forces larger and more powerful than ourselves, of not knowing, of the transience of it all.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Littoral Drift and Ecotone are monuments to the awesome power water has over our lives. “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea,” said composer John Luther Adams, about his Pulitzer Prize–winning orchestral piece, Become Ocean. “And as the polar ice melts and sea levels rise, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that, once again, we may quite literally become ocean.”
Meghann Riepenhoff, born in 1979 in Atlanta, lives and works on Bainbridge Island and in San Francisco. Riepenhoff has mounted solo exhibitions at the Bolinas Museum (California), Memphis College of Art, Museo de la Ciudad (Mexico), RayKo Photo Center (San Francisco), and SF Camerawork (San Francisco). She has participated in shows at the Aperture Foundation (New York); Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville); Denver Art Museum; Fotofest Biennial (Houston); Houston Center for Photography; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Phoenix Art Museum; and Portland Art Museum. Her work is in permanent collections at institutions including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo); Chrysler Museum of Art (Virginia); Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge); High Museum of Art (Atlanta), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago; New York Public Library; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.”
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