Lighted Geographies: Space, Memory, and Knowledge in Lauren Rosenthal’s Topographies and Rich Hogan’s Untitled, Photographs – An Essay by Hilary R. Whitham

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Rich Hogan, Untitled (1), 2016, 44″ x 56″, Archival Inkjet Print

In his 1994 essay, Felix in Exile: Geography of Memory, South African artist William Kentridge writes, “The landscape hides its history. The general nature of terrain and landscape as image is to appear as fact. […] I am really interested in the terrain’s hiding of its own history, and the correspondence this has not only with painting, but with the way memory works.” The work of Rich Hogan and Lauren Rosenthal similarly seeks to understand the way in which natural features – a series of fields and watersheds – are transformed into sites of human intervention – through memorialization and mapping.

Hogan’s Untitled, Landscape series consists of six large photographic prints of a defoliated wooded landscape. The cyan and magenta channels paired with the reduplication of the black-and-white trees create a sense that the image could be three-dimensional if seen with the appropriate glasses. The coherence of the image, and the continuity of the landscape, is predicated on a prosthetic device which is absent, not only frustrating our vision but also generating a sense of disequilibrium as the trees seem to quiver before our eyes.

Hogan created Untitled, Landscape over a series of visits in the spring of 2016 to the memorial park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, commemorating the Civil War battle of 1863. The site, which is managed by the Gettysburg Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service, measures nearly 700 acres and contains 1,320 monuments, 148 historic buildings, and 2 observation towers. The park’s 41 miles (66 km) of avenues, roads, and lanes enable visitors to roam the varied topography of the site from the comfort of their vehicles. Each of the images in Untitled, Landscape can be traced to a different point along the route suggested by the National Park Service. The journey begins at the Visitor Center, which incorporates images of the battle taken by Timothy O’Sullivan and Matthew Brady in its exhibitions. The Civil War was the second conflagration to ever be photographically documented; O’Sullivan and Brady’s images were frequently used as sources for lithographic prints reproduced in newspapers, and, at the conclusion of the war, were arranged into a photographic album whose sale benefited war widows. At the Visitor Center the photographs have been enlarged and transformed into images which can be viewed with 3D glasses, removing them not only from their original viewing mode but also from their very subject matter. (Is a nineteenth century corpse still compelling when viewed in stereoscope?) The absence of traces of the trauma of the battle – one of the most violent in United States’ history – results in an alienation from the landscape which precipitated Hogan’s photographic meditation. As Kentridge observes, “the way that things seem to be indelibly imprinted on our memories still fade and become elusive, is mirrored in the way in which the terrain itself cannot hold onto the events played out upon it.”

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Rich Hogan, Untitled (2), 2016, 44″ x 56″, Archival Inkjet Print

Through a process of digital manipulation, Hogan extracts the cyan and magenta color layers from the original full color photograph, and then places a black-and-white skin over the entirety. The impossibility of rendering the photograph into a coherent image of woods is analogous to the artist’s impression of the intellectual and emotional inaccessibility of the site. Furthermore, the digital components of each image in the Untitled, Landscape series function as an analogy for the way in which notions of citizenship have been racialized and contested throughout the history of our nation, bringing the subject matter of the Civil War back into the picture. The magenta and cyan, colored homonyms for the red and blue of our national flag, are superimposed with a filter evocative of the tendentious and reductive binary associated with discourses on race in the United States. Untitled, Landscape can thus be read as deeply patriotic, seeking to call our attention to the way in which the very processes of remembrance also entail a forgetting which is particular to a given historical moment – with all its attendant implications for our present.

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Lauren Rosenthal, Upper Delaware Watershed, 2008, hand-cut watercolor paper, 16″ x 12″

Gettysburg National Park sits entirely within the Potomac River watershed, connecting Hogan’s work to Rosenthal’s. Her Topographies series, undertaken between 2011 and 2014, are constructed paper sculptures of watersheds in the Delaware River valley. Watersheds are an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas, which Rosenthal describes as a bowl in the landscape into which the river drains. Topographies immediately impresses the viewer with the overwhelming pristineness and delicacy of the smooth white surfaces. Upon first look, the works appear to be delicate pencil drawings on paper – only upon closer examination is it apparent that the works are in fact three dimensional cavities that recess back into the picture plane.

Topographies can be understood as the result of multiple translations: from geological feature into two forms of schematic rendering, and then back into a physical object. First, Rosenthal collects information using geographic information system (GIS) software on the area which she wants to depict. The GIS generates black and white shaded information that mimics the ridges and valleys of the Delaware River Valley, which Rosenthal then processes into a topographic map, consisting of concentric circles. Each layer is then printed out and rendered three-dimensionally with 300lb watercolor paper using a Xerox transfer method. Rosenthal then incises and glues each layer together individually, stacking them together and cutting the ends of the total assemblage cleanly with an exacto knife. Through this series of procedures, the sub-basins that make up the Delaware River watershed are translated into reverse reliefs in paper. The tension between the technological and the manual aspects of Rosenthal’s labor points to both the limits and possibilities of human tools, both manual and cognitive.

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Lauren Rosenthal, Schuylkill Watershed, 2010, hand-cut watercolor paper, 16″ x 12″

Rosenthal’s work is simultaneously site specific and universalized, playing with our analytical – as opposed to our optical – perceptions. The time-intensive and complex nature of her artistic process emphasizes the way in which humans seek to assert their authority over nature, rendering themselves as sovereign subjects over inanimate objects. Rosenthal’s gestures draw attention to the falsity of this paradigm, stressing – through opposition and parody – the way in which humans are part of and reliant upon the networks of the Earth’s resources. Her deployment of representations of the places in which water and earth meet points to the artificiality of boundaries between geological features and humans, as well as between humans and the natural world. As Kentridge observes, “I do not think there can be any simple response to a place whose appearance is so different from its history.” In Rosenthal’s work, history refers not only to the human interventions which interest Kentridge and Hogan, but also what geologists refer to as “deep time,” the multimillion year time frame within which scientists believe the earth has existed.

Topographies and Untitled, Landscape renders the landscape of Pennsylvania as the site upon which the interconnectedness of life – what French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty termed the intertwining of being – can be read and re-presented to us. James Baldwin’s reflections on the ceaseless flow of energy seem apropos. He writes, “For nothing is fixed; […] the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. […] The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” In their artworks, Rosenthal and Hogan urge us to keep on the light.

 

About the author:

Hilary R. Whitham is a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and currently serves as a lecturer at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA). Her ongoing research interests include modern and contemporary art and the history of photography. Whitham is a founding member of the Incubation Series, which brings together students in the History of Art and Fine Art departments at Penn for curatorial collaborations, and is sponsored by the Provost’s Interdisciplinary Arts Fund in collaboration with the ICA.  Prior to her arrival in Philadelphia three years ago, Whitham lived in New York City, earning her MA at the City University of New York and serving as the director of Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn.

To download a PDF version of this essay, click https://napoleonphiladelphia.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/whitham_rosenthal_hogan_may_2017.pdf

NAPOLEON is a collectively-run project space that strives to provide a platform for new work and new ideas.

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