Los Angeles

Marco Breuer

Marco Breuer has never published a “Verb List” as Richard Serra has, but you get the feeling he has one secreted somewhere. His recent exhibition at Von Lintel Gallery, which presented fifteen years’ worth of his manipulations and mutilations of photographic materials, is a litany of infinitives: to cut, to sand, to scratch, to prick, to burn, to slice. Each action—frequently unnamed but hinted at in the exhibition checklist with phrases like “gelatin-silver paper, burned” or “chromogenic paper, scratched”—determines a work.

For Untitled (Cloth II/100% Cotton), 1998, Breuer placed cotton gauze on standard black-and-white photographic paper and set it on fire in the darkroom. As the fabric burned, the emitted light exposed the paper unevenly, creating a faint photogram of its weave, and the heat turned patches of emulsion a ferruginous red and gold. To make Pan (C-269), 2003, the artist scored exposed and developed chromogenic paper with a razor blade; each mark exposed various reds, yellows, and blues beneath the black surface. Small eruptions of white—the ground of the paper itself—interrupt the precision of the ruler-guided lines, indicating places where the blade stuttered over flecks of dust. The photograph as a mechanically reproducible analog to the physical world, an image of what has been, is supplanted by a unique record of the production process, one that asserts foremost the materiality of the emulsion, the paper, and the heat and light that form a photograph.

Because Breuer typically exhibits only single series, the survey at Von Lintel offered a gratifying opportunity to see his earliest and his most recent works together, and the amalgam of gelatin-silver photos, color prints, Xerox manipulations, and collages on display reinforced just how consistent Breuer’s violations of the medium have been. His work defines photography asymptotically, pushing the materials seemingly to the edge of endurance. He rids himself of the camera, the negative, even the image, yet always remains within the medium’s limits.

But the violence held at arm’s length by the modest grace of these pictures is never fully surpassed by their beauty, and when more than forty works are seen together, the images become less about the magic of wresting color from black and white or the inventiveness of such abuse, and more about the experience of the paper itself. Photography is thereby rendered somatic, of the body. Such a corporeal association is visible on the first page of the earliest work in the show—the ring-bound, multivolume compilation 100 Tage (100 Days), 1992—in which he plots the measurements of his body, from the width of his neck to the length of his fingernails, over a photograph of himself. As his work has matured, the body has been embedded further and further in the photo, as if caught between the layer of emulsion and the page, and the cost of beauty has become more visceral.

Breuer has also moved the photograph back in time. The title of the exhibition, “1892–2007,” predates its earliest work by a century. Such a strategy, at once a reminder to the viewer that Breuer places his own artistic origins in the nineteenth century and a playful insistence by the artist that he may not be ready for such conclusive things as retrospectives, suggests that Breuer is not finished with photography. The medium has not yet reached its limit.

Rachel Churner