New York

Ton van Summern

David Beitzel Gallery

The Greek philosopher Empedocles was the first among Western scientific thinkers to propose that the universe was composed of four distinct elements: earth, air, fire, and water. His theory survived in various forms at least until the 16th-century and still holds powerful symbolic, if not scientific, sway over the imagining of nature today. Ton van Summern investigates that theory’s attraction in this collection of five altered black and white photographs.

The central images, enlarged from the pages of science books, depict each of Empedocles’ supposed four elements as they appear when placed under enormous torsion or explosive force: one is of a mountain range, one of huge ocean waves, one of a tornado, and two of atomic explosions. (This last pair is somewhat incongruous, since no such events could occur on earth without human intervention, but one gathers that the artist intends no more than to represent the phenomenon of fire in its most violent manifestation.) Over each photograph, van Summern has applied silver paint in a pattern taken from the trails subatomic particles leave in a bubble chamber, the spirals and streaks that show on a plate when the cohesion of the atom is forced apart. In some of the works the silver paint against the black and white background looks like blistering, as if the forces which create the depicted scenes were so strong that they had distorted or burned the surface of the film itself, an effect reinforced by the presence of dark penumbrae just visible beneath each streak. And the trails dart around the scenes in circles and long curves that seem to be abstracted from the photos themselves, adding to the effect of great agitation and swirling motion.

But the superimposition of the two nature studies shows more than formal similarities. A picture of the particles’ trails is itself a photograph of a sort, one of a substance undergoing great violence. Van Summern’s application of those representations to the enlarged photographs of explosions and such is more than just fortuitously interesting: it’s an ingenious juxtaposition of scale, in both space and time. The visual metaphors work the phenomenon of size in both directions. The photos are enlarged to the point where the grain of the film is prominent enough to threaten the image with dissolution, creating a swirl of spots, of dark corpuscles that resonate with the atomism implicit in the paint streaks. And the particle trails are put in a context that allows them to become enlarged in our imagination, from a scale too small to be comprehended to a more graspable and significant size, one that seems to show them taking place amid tangible, sublunar events.

Time is the second dimension the artist investigates; he seems to be trying to capture the atmosphere of scientific speculation in his work. Each piece has a Latin title”—“Terra,” “Ignius,” and so forth—and is tagged with the words “ex artis.” The language he has chosen gives the up-to-date science he draws on an archaic feel, as if to suggest that the differences between theories and models separated by time mask a similarity of purpose, a shared fascination which motivates the investigation of fundamental principles. This notion is underscored by the fact that the pieces take events well separated in time and mirror or double them: the atomic theory of elements is our own best answer to the same question Empedocles asked, and it is asserted with great power when the forces of nature are unleashed upon matter and the furious results captured on a photographic plate; they become studies in the sublime.

James Lewis