New York

Gwenn Thomas

Black + Greenberg

When seen from a distance, Gwenn Thomas’ black and white grids on stretched linen might be mistaken for geometric abstract paintings, but upon closer examination it becomes clear that these grids have been pointedly mediated along photographic lines. Squares of material (paper, packing tape, and cardboard) in black, white, and gray have been laid out in rectangular grids on an off-white ground, photographed, probably enlarged, and then printed on linen treated with photoemulsion. Thomas stretched the linen over bars and hung the pieces without framing them. The resulting pictures are ethereal and smart, sensuous and complex.

The effect of these mediated grids is quite different from that of painted grids, and also from the “original” collaged ones. By lighting the grids at an oblique angle as they are photographed, Thomas has added shadows to some lines, suggesting depth but also twilight, and smoothed the transitions from one line to the next to create lines that seem at once sharper and flatter. The grids appear to float above the surface on a cushion of air, but the most interesting effect of the mediation is what happens to the tone of these works. Frederick Sommer has said that “Of all the disciplines, photography has the longest legato in terms of tone.” By photographing her grids, Thomas has bound them together. The parts have become continuous rather than distinct, so that there is a calm, pleasing transition from one to another. As is often the case in photographically mediated surfaces, the pleasing tone and transitions here tend to mask the deficiencies of some of the constructions—the seeming arbitrariness of some of the arrangements.

In fact, one way to read this work is as a send-up of the mystification of photographic properties by those practitioners of art photography who rely too much on the aura of the photographic. The constituent squares in Thomas’ constructions look very much like the patches in the old “zone system” invented by Ansel Adams and further refined by Minor White to “previsualize” the negative for better black and white photographic printing. (There are still those photographers who wander all over the landscape with giant view cameras, poring over toxic chemicals in darkrooms in a search of “true black.”)

By isolating the most basic properties of photography and the behavior of sensitized surfaces—grays and blacks, light and shadow, texture and tone—Thomas’ grids provide a remarkable and elegant demonstration of the way the medium of photography shapes the look of things. Beyond that, Thomas’ works are a fresh take on the old dilemmas of the Minimalist grid. By exploiting the photographic aura, she adds emotional resonance to the order and discipline of the grid, and produces compelling pictures at the intersection of image and abstraction.

David Levi Strauss