New York

Maria Martinez-Cañas

Julie Saul Gallery

Maria Martinez-Cañas often derives the layered, complex imagery of her photographs from old maps, customs documents, and other items relating to her Cuban heritage. However, in “Traces of Nature,” her most recent show, the inspiration came not from her memories of Cuba but from her own backyard: On view were photograms—shadowlike images produced by placing objects between light-sensitive paper and a light source—made with plants, leaves, and other organic forms taken from the Miami-based artist’s garden. Used since World War II in the creation of maps, the photogram has also been a favorite mode of experimentation among art photographers, including Man Ray, Christian Schad, and (perhaps most important for Martinez-Cañas, who was trained in Bauhaus-influenced Chicago) László Moholy-Nagy.

The artist presented the large series from 1999 that gave the show its title, along with two smaller ones, “Metamorfosis,” and “Garden,” both 1998. The latter pair comprised toned gelatin-silver prints of fourteen by eleven inches, although the “Metamorfosis” images carried a little more blue, while the “Garden” series read more warmly as brown. The works in “Traces of Nature” are diazo prints, the results of a blueprinting process that is typically used to make charts and architectural renderings. Mounted on unstretched canvas, the most notable of these was Markings, which at seventy-one by eighty-two inches was by far the largest piece in the show.

Both in technique and subject matter, Martinez-Cañas’s works recall nineteenth-century botanical prints, traditionally made using the photogram method and printed in blue-green ink. Her images are much more abstract, however. These large compositions alternately evoke an undersea world and a geometrical arrangement of specimens in silhouette. Yet they seem less like images of nature than codes or signs that indicate the presence of nature. Subtle variations in tone create a delicate sfumato around the silhouetted objects, suggesting that they exist not just on the flattened surface of the paper but in a foglike atmosphere. As a result, the works seem to hover between two and three dimensions, implying a tension between nature and abstraction, between the object and its representation.

Through her use of the photogram, Martinez-Cañas connects herself both to modernist innovators like Moholy-Nagy and to an older legacy of naturalists transcribing plant life for analytical purposes. Still, she seems less intent on joining either tradition than in testing the boundaries of the medium, particularly in the creation of large-scale art that would not be read, at first glance, as photography. The use of blueprint paper in particular has resulted in large works of austere and innovative beauty that transform natural objects into mysterious shadow forms of strong graphic presence and indeterminate meaning.

Justin Spring