New York

Agnes Denes

Elise Meyer Gallery

Agnes Denes’ recent show came as a surprise. Denes is best known for drawings that visually describe the essential structures underlying complex systems. The luscious color photographs that dominated this show seemed, at first glance, to have little in common with the cerebral yet beautiful map projections, numerical progressions, linguistic studies, etc., that viewers have come to expect from her. But for all their apparent differences, the color photographs were linked conceptually to the rest of Denes’ work, for these images were only part of a multifaceted project designed to explore life principles and evolutionary processes.

The exhibition was divided into two interrelated parts. The first, entitled “Rice/Tree/Burial,” provided a visual and verbal overview of the whole project. Five panels, each containing a number of small color “snapshots” were arranged in a grid form. Three, accompanied by poetic texts, described “Events”—ritual performances by the artist which took place in Artpark from 1977 to 1979. The first panel recorded Denes planting a rice field “to represent life (growth)”; the second showed her chaining trees in a forest together to symbolize “bondage . . . [and the] triumph [of life] over boundaries.” The third panel documented her burial of a “time capsule,” to be exhumed in 2979, that contained students’ responses to a questionnaire dealing with human values, the quality of life, and what the future holds; by burying the students’ thoughts, Denes hoped to plant a conceptual seed that would transcend time and link the present to the future. The fourth and fifth panels were views of Niagara Falls, their inclusion in the project “ . . . add[ed] the force of nature and its unpredictability . . .” to the images and ideas in the three other sections.

In this first section, the small color photographs served as secondary sources, documents of the original art/ritual experience. In the second section of the show, entitled “Anima/Persona (the seed),” photographic images functioned simultaneously as documentary descriptions of the growth of rice seeds and as expressive and esthetic vehicles. According to Denes, these color pictures of seeds, some of them magnified as much as 400 times, represented the next step within the “Rice/Tree/Burial” project: “. . . claim[ing] the rice seed itself, not as seed but as form, not inert but active, in motion and ‘in growth’.” Photographed by Denes, rice seeds became “performers in the drama of life.” Their dynamic forms, sensuous colors (mostly browns, greens, oranges and whites) and sinuous interrelationships, expressed an “élan vital” that linked them to all evolutionary forces. Denes stressed these links by consistently anthropomorphizing the seeds, which seemed to converse, to gesture, to erotically interact with each other.

All of the photographs in “Anima/Persona” were structurally similar; they depicted one or more seeds as large and often central forms against a blank backdrop. Each image of a particular seed became a variation on her single theme of growth and change, which Denes emphasized by presenting the pictures in three different ways. The most successful formats in the exhibition were those that enhanced the feeling of movement and change inherent in the images. Three 36-by 28-inch panels, each consisting of 28 small pictures arranged in a grid, juxtaposed single photographs in such a way that individual seeds became activated forms in a dynamic pattern. The same activation occurred in the hologram on view, the first 360-degree hologram ever taken of a growing plant. (The camera work for this piece was done by Donald White). Consisting of 2200 movie frames shot at five minute intervals over a period of a week while the seeds were growing under water, the holographic image literally seemed to sprout as it turned on its pedestal.

But the numerous large-scale (16-by 20-inch, 11-by 14-inch) Cibachrome prints on view posed a problem. Individually matted and framed, these photographs demanded to be seen as self-contained, precious objects, and this emphasis on the beauty of single images undermined both the continuity of the exhibition and the primacy of Denes’ overall concept. It also forced the viewer to see the pictures, not within an ideational framework, but within the context of fine art photography. This made Denes’ work look both hackneyed and mediocre. Edward Weston anthropomorphized vegetables over half a century ago, and his work was certainly more technically proficient than Denes’; contemporary photographers like Sura Ruth and Lilo Raymond have described the sensuality of natural forms, and Denes’ images don’t compete with theirs. Obviously Denes couldn’t resolve a conflict of interest between the esthetic and the conceptual nature of “Animal/Persona,” and in the end her indecision diluted both the beauty and the effectiveness of her project.

Shelly Rice