New York

Todd Watts

Todd Watts’ photographs draw on the scientific aura of the medium only to set his viewers up for a fall. Like pictures used in astronomical, meteorological, and medical applications, his elaborately constructed images have the look of the strictly evidential, and come complete with the requisite grid of crosses or dots. But rather than limiting factors and elements in order to decrease ambiguity and heighten objectivity, Watts uses the scientific frame to expose and highlight the arbitrariness and fallibility of human vision.

Some of Watts’ most effective works are his “Dimensional Abstractions,” 1986–87, in which seemingly extraterrestrial objects and events are depicted in a “realistic” way, and then shifted slightly to reveal their utter artificiality. Singularities (Dimensional Abstraction), 1987, presents a close-up view of an astrophysical body, perhaps a planet, filling one side of the frame, and two closer, out-of-focus satellites on the other. Watts’ ubiquitous grid of dots hides a sea of stars. A measuring rod that seems to cast a curved shadow onto the planet bisects the frame, and between the rod and its shadow is an irregular white X, which may or may not be marked on the surface of the print. In the next print in the series, the grid of dots is out of focus, while the measuring rod remains sharp. The satellites are darkened, and both planet and shadow are lightened. The “planet” now appears to be merely an effect of light on paper, and its “satellites” look more like finger smudges. Space and depth become utterly mutable, mere optical effects.

The human figure in Particles, 1992, (a work in the series “Are We Not Men, Study for a Frieze,” 1990–94) is abstracted into barely recognizable parts and rendered topographically in an otherworldly orange light. In Silhouettes, 1994, from the same series, a rose, octopus, girl, hat, boy, bird, rabbit, and bear are visualized as negative constellations or gaseous shadows. Many of these images appear to have been made by an alien intelligence confronting human forms and artifacts for the first time, as in Methane Breather, 1989, in which Watts creates a strikingly alien visage through simple superimposition and lighting. The weirdest thing about this portrait is the mutant’s terrifyingly normal shirt collar. Radio Rain (#0333), 1990, pictures a humanoid’s elongated neck and errant ear, topped by a mass of obliterating light where an upturned face might have been. It echoes works by Man Ray and Robert Mapplethorpe, but conveys a singular sense of the oblivion at the limit of human aspiration and arrogance.

The individual images are remarkably compelling and disturbing, and they easily exceed the portentous uses to which they are put in titles and statements accompanying the work. I’m not at all sure what there is to learn from Watts’ images a bout bioethics and genetic engineering, space travel, or ecology, but there is a great deal here about the tenuous relation between appearance and fact, information and truth.

David Levi Strauss