John Opera, Woman in Window, 2012, cyanotype on stretched linen, 24 x 20".

John Opera, Woman in Window, 2012, cyanotype on stretched linen, 24 x 20".

John Opera

John Opera, Woman in Window, 2012, cyanotype on stretched linen, 24 x 20".

Whether as an architectural blueprint or a photogram, the cyanotype is infinitely alluring. Articulated by or within a field of deep Persian blue, images produced by this rudimentary two-chemical photographic process can be more graphically beguiling than even the most richly toned silver gelatin print. John Opera knows this. “People, Places, and Things,” his exhibition of eleven modestly sized works (all 2012), dispassionately indexed six seemingly unremarkable image types—bottles, ropes, chains, hands, fossils, and the portrait of a young woman. Yet the blue splendor saturating the stretched linen support of each piece makes these works fascinating. Opera’s no-frills taxonomic aesthetic calls to mind cyanotype’s mid-nineteenth-century beginnings: British botanist Anna Atkins’s pioneering use of the process to record impressions of algae and seaweed. On first glance “People, Places, and Things” might have been considered an homage as much to the utility of this early photographic medium as to its telltale visual splendor.

Of the various compositions Opera put into play here, his glass-bottle still lifes were of particular note, given the degree to which they foreground the light-recording phenomena intrinsic to the cyanotype process itself. In these works, the transparency of the vessels amplifies the value range of each print’s hue, while the harmonious groupings of objects concentrated at the center of the picture open up a region of shallow, illusionary depth. Suspended in the composition with no indication of a horizontal plane or grounding coordinates, the bottles seem almost to hover above their densely saturated, tautly stretched linen support. Bottles II, for example, which incorporates a cluster of five vessels, including a bulbous-bottom lab flask, a vase, and a few wine or liquor bottles, in effect satisfies as both genre “painting” and an exercise in the surprising visual qualities cyanotype is able to yield. These prints are not, however, “experiments” per se. As with all of the work Opera made for this exhibition, these images are the carefully executed result of a photographic image made into a transparency placed directly on top of a chemically treated piece of fabric and then exposed to light. In other words, these photograms are not indexes of primary objects but rather indexes of their photographic capture.

At roughly four by three feet, the largest works on view here took either a tangle of ropes or a length of chain as their subject. Like the bottle pieces, the rope compositions (Rope I and Rope II) are articulated by negative space, the twisted loops irregular yet balanced around the center of the picture plane, careful to maintain their status as “figure,” distinct from the deep blue of the allover field. The subjects in Chains I and Chain II, however, are rendered as positive forms—the objects are blue, the background bare or blown-out, revealing a ground of raw linen. The designations of “subject” and “ground” are slightly more ambiguous in Opera’s fossil-based works; for these prints, the artist did employ an allover compositional conceit, distributing small fossils evenly so that Devonian I and Devonian II (in reference to the geologic period associated with the rise of land animals and spread of vegetation) seem more to establish a pattern than to depict any freestanding form.

Adding to this array of mono-object categories, Opera also showed three cyanotype canvases bearing six disembodied, gesturing hands each (Hands I, Hands II, Hands III) and one work hosting the image of a standing woman, poised at what appears to be a window, her likeness made faint by horizontal banding, as though she were veiled by a set of venetian blinds. Are Opera’s various pictures simply a random collection of image types? The stretched linen (rather than traditional paper) supports that he uses for his cyanotype prints might suggest otherwise—that, rather, Opera is flirting with the cultural terms of painting. When viewing the rope and chain compositions, one can’t help but draw associations with the signature vinelike forms of Brice Marden, say, or with the ineffable simplicity of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes or the meditative affect of Gerhard Richter’s figures, perpetually separated from us by the slightest blur. Through the most basic light-recording practice, Opera calls upon us to acknowledge the macro conditions of viewing—the limits of representation and perception—only to reward us with the magic of cyanotype, an elemental chemical process, and its exquisite, unmistakable blue.

Michelle Grabner