Brent Wahl, the multimedia artist behind the February exhibit at Grizzly Grizzly, Think Much, Cry Much, on working both against and within the photographic tradition, his perverse urge to conceal things, and the poetry of rocks.
Since the early nineties, Philadelphia-based artist Brent Wahl has been sounding the conceptual depths of photography and sculpture with restless imagination. His multimedia practice continues a long tradition of artists photographing work in the studio for various reasons—to document fugitive stages in the creative process, to serve as sketchbook or research tool, to generate otherwise impossible views of an object. Wahl’s particular line of inquiry—based on using optics of the camera lens to translate his ephemeral three-dimensional constructions into final works of large-format, abstract photography—does all of this and something more. His visual language gracefully sidesteps assumptions about what a photograph does versus what it depicts, producing a generative confusion between two functions.
Although the images appear tightly choreographed, Wahl’s photographs rely as much on intuition and spontaneity as on precision. This is what I admire about the work—how it is technically masterful and engaged with formal concerns, but never overly plotted-out and always attuned to the grace of happenstance. I spoke with the 2014 Pew fellow and University of Pennsylvania distinguished lecturer on the occasion of his current show at Grizzly Grizzly, and he generously shared some thoughts on the impetus and evolution of his art.
(RW) Think Much, Cry Much gathers a selection of previous and unseen work made since 2015 under a common theme. Can you say more about this unifying thread?
(BW) What ties these works together in my mind are the philosophical questions driving them, questions that have to do with identity, our relationship to reality, and how we frame our existence in the universe. That and a longstanding interest in optics and photography’s purported function of reflecting visible reality. When I consider how we exist in the world today versus the history of the world and the vastness of nature—well, it gets me thinking a lot. It also makes me want to cry (laughter).
I appreciate how the images pretty much defy narrative reading, but are not completely abstract or without content.
Yes, there’s an intentional sense of vacantness and digital neatness to the work. I make efforts to hide the fact that everything in the picture is hand-constructed. It takes time to realize that you’re looking at a straight photograph. My latest work is particularly graphic and so stripped down that you assume it must have a message, right? It’s just a matter of spending time to decipher it. This idea of concealed visual information in an image, of making things mysterious and very slow to unfold and translate for the viewer—it’s a preoccupation of mine. I’d call it a perverse urge that I have, really.
Your newest work incorporates three-dimensional objects in real space for the first time as part of the gallery presentation—mainly rocks and minerals collected from the Arizona desert last summer while doing an artist residency in Sedona.
Yes, since then I’ve had rocks spread out in the studio, looking at them, photographing them, basically trying to figure out how to use them. They’re so beautiful and physically present. Confronting a rock in space, thinking about its individual journey and how much time has passed since its formation—it makes you slow down and re-evaluate everything.
I hear myself describing this and it sounds kind of new age-y or something, but I don’t mean it that way at all. Poetic realizations definitely happen between me and the rocks, I guess. But they’re not mystical experiences. Mystical is a different situation, which I find pretty amusing. I’m actually entertaining the idea of doing some work about that right now.
Rocks have a different relationship to time than we do. So does the camera.
Exactly. And I’m juxtaposing these rocks and petrified woods with various man-made objects like mirrors, plastic forms, and other things—materials spanning millions of years, in fact—partly as a way of complicating notions of time both in and outside of the photograph. Mixing natural materials with everyday objects connected to luxury or vanity is also a way of opening up a series of questions in the work about individual ego, why we’re driven by the goods that surround us, why we value and preserve some things and not others.
Blue Galaxy is a new work and a centerpiece in the show. It looks like a still life painting from the distant future. How did you create this image?
That’s a fairly large construction. I actually shot it on a ping pong table, which is why it’s blue. Most of the shapes are fragments of acrylic countertop material that I cut and arranged. In the foreground you see a rock and in the background there’s a photograph I made. It’s a photograph within the photograph of what looks like an image of the galaxy, but it’s actually sprinkled ashes from a burnt-down building. Another piece of acrylic, which isn’t shown in the image, rests on top of the framed piece in real space and it’s balanced on the same type of rock pictured in the work. So, in some cases, the forms exist in two planes.
Tell me more about the photograph within the photograph.
It’s actually part of a diptych I made in 2012. For a while now I’ve engaged with what I call “debris sites” in Philadelphia and places I’ve traveled. I’ll visit a location repeatedly and collect debris to photograph, which, in a way, documents the site. It also cleans it up. At one point I was working with remains of a middle school that burned down in West Philadelphia—the city’s public school system is in dire straits to begin with. The ashes seemed symbolically heavy and my urge was to transform them into something amazing that might inspire wonder or the desire to explore, like a view of the galaxy.
You don’t consider yourself a photographer per se, yet photography is at the core of this body of work and the final medium displayed. How do you think of photography these days?
The embedded ideas in the genre of photography are fascinating. I also love the science of photography and optics. But a traditional photograph is not always completely satisfying to me anymore. Because it’s the medium I know the most in terms of craft, I always return to it and then I’ll stray. I’m most interested in the camera as a tool for mediation one step beyond its normal use. I love messing with illusion and perceived ideas of what a photograph is and isn’t.
The camera also functions practically in terms of documenting your process. Do you feel like you are performing for the camera?
Yes, sometimes it’s more of a performance than I intended! Those are the best moments—when things swirl off in a weird direction and I lose control of the materials I’m trying to manipulate for the camera. Ultimately the camera is watching me build up and tear down and rebuild the structure over and over until I arrive at the final image. I’m working in layers, much like a painter. The result is an indexed view of studio activity that happened sometimes over months. The viewer will never see the actual thing I photographed. I suppose it’s not unlike many performative acts in art that exist only as documentation.
You refer to your constructed sets as drawings rather than sculptures. Is the distinction important?
Definitely. The fabrications are not meant to be experienced as sculpture, and I think that’s an operative dilemma in my work for the viewer. Is the photograph just a document of a sculpture or is the photograph itself the work of art? I love that confusion. Everybody asks me why I don’t show the sets. It’s tricky because they are something to behold, but not as final works. It goes back to that urge to conceal no matter how interesting the original construction may or may not be. I’m certainly thinking and making sculpturally, but the fabrication is constantly morphing up to the point when I take that final photograph. There’s an immediacy and an ephemeral quality to the making that I equate more with drawing. The process is very alive.
The act of building the constructions makes me think of little exercises in architecture. Do you ever think about architecture when making them?
No, not specifically. But I’m extremely moved by the experience of space and materiality in architecture. As a kid, I designed weird ninety-story skyscrapers at a drafting table in my room. I even made a little logo for my make believe architecture firm. In my work now, I think this comes down to ideas about structure, which I don’t really know anything about. I’m constantly having to deal with how the fabrications are going to hold up—I use a lot of wires. But one of my favorite quotes about material is from the architect Louis Kahn, and I feel it pertains to my practice somehow. He said, “even a brick wants to be something.” I think a piece of debris, or a rock, wants to be something too.
You mentioned musing over this idea of new age-y relationships to nature. What else are you working on now?
Yeah, I wonder where that’s going! I’m heavy into experimentation and at times go around blindly in the studio like a mad scientist. I am actually getting ready to install a public art commission for Philadelphia’s new Viaduct Park Rail. It’s a large, site-specific sculpture I’ve made in collaboration with a brilliant local poet named Laynie Brown who is curating incorporated text elements. The project links to the natural environment by drawing attention to the ground and sky, and references ideas of transit, collective memory, and sanctuary space. My approach to color and line will be familiar to some viewers, but I use more overt symbolism than usual. There’s still plenty hidden in the work to discover if you’re looking. I guess that’s my obsession with concealment at work again (laughter)—I can’t help it.
Brent Wahl is a multi-media artist working primarily with photography, installation, and time-based media. Through the use of ephemeral materials, he fabricates three-dimensional structures in which the varying subject matter moves through contextual, optical, and spatial shifts. Brent was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Columbia, SC. Moving to New York in 1990, he resided there until 2004, when he moved his studio to Philadelphia. Brent was the recipient of a 2014 Pew Center for Arts & Heritage Individual Artist Grant, and he was a 2012 Community Supported Artist. He has exhibited widely in the US and abroad. Brent also teaches courses in the photography department as well as 2D and 3D courses in the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.
Robyn Wise is a San Francisco-based culture writer, editor and content strategist specializing in visual art and design. Before this, she was head of public relations at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).