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Catherine Wagner's photographic framing at Mills College museum
Charles Desmarais, SF Chronicle
August 30, 2018

Photo © Phil Bond Photography, 2018

Looking up at a detail of Catherine Wagner's Laws of Reflection (2018) at Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Phil Bond Photography, 2018

Bay Area artist Catherine Wagner has built a formidable reputation as a photographer over a career spanning four decades, four books and numerous museum exhibitions. Her ambitious exhibition at Mills College Art Museum, on view Saturday, Sept. 8-Dec. 9, is her bid for a broader portfolio as a conceptual artist with something to say about architecture, sculpture and dance.

As a photographer, Wagner is known for an analytical, almost scientific style, and the show succeeds on those Wagnerian terms. It is an impeccably staged, precisely engaging experience and that is both its distinction and where it falls short.

Catherine Wagner: Archaeology in Reverse is on view at Mills College Art Museum, starting Saturday Sept. 8. Photo: Phil Bond Photography, 2018

The installation is a collaboration with architects Nicholas de Monchaux and Kathryn Moll, who call their joint practice Modem, and choreographer Molissa Fenley. Both Wagner and Fenley are on the faculty at Mills.

The exhibition, titled Archaeology in Reverse, presents itself as an analysis of the Mills museum building and, metaphorically, of the institution's inner workings. That was probably always beyond reach. Notwithstanding the interdisciplinary team Wagner has assembled, the show is essentially about what we might call photographic looking. That is, it is about pointing, framing and focus.

Five of the 16 works included are large or multi-panel photographs. Some give us glimpses of usually unseen attics (with, superfluously, colored gels hung about). Others are of scarred gallery walls seen from behind, or torn apart after the exhibition lights go down and the art has been removed. The wittiest of these record the multiple patches and penciled notes that museum professionals know underlie every installation, but are not meant to be seen by the public. There's also a video, shot by Michael Mersereau, of Fenley's responses in movement to the museum building and its surroundings.

Catherine Wagner, "Apertura Blue I" (2018) at Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Phil Bond Photography, 2018

The most curious aspect of the exhibition is a scattering of six irregular constructions, built into the ceiling, windows and doorways of the museum's main gallery. The three pieces that hang from above are all titled "Laws of Reflection." They are telescoping plastic channels (they look a lot like refined construction debris chutes) that frame an opening in the suspended ceiling, and extend to just above the floor. Mirrors below are situated to give a kaleidoscopic view up the long tube and into the skeletal girders and braces of a grand skylight, now decommissioned.

The other three are large devices built of dimensional lumber, plywood and white scrim. They glow attractively with the transmitted light of the outdoors. They are, however, meant to control what we see, elaborately but strictly framing views of, alternately, some simple sculptural piles of sawn cedar (a fallen tree from the Mills campus) and an arcade. For all their ingenious and careful fabrication, all six of the structures serve no function but to direct and limit our attention.

Apertura Blue II (2018) is part of Catherine Wagner: Archeology in Reverse. Photo: Phil Bond Photography, 2018

The Modem architects, who first met Wagner at the American Academy in Rome, write in the excellent catalog of “apertures, openings, periscopes and windows we have created together that trace what they call a Roman history: the balance between the optical and the spatial. This, of course, is the principal technical challenge of two-dimensional representation, and particularly of photography.

What one wants most from such an investigation is an answer to the timeless puzzle of perception: its maddeningly incomplete relationship to any objective reality outside the constraints of our senses. The virtue of Archaeology in Reverse is in its prompt to our meditation on such matters. Its failure is its promise to address them by setting even tighter limits.

Catherine Wagner: Archaeology in Reverse: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesdays-Sundays; Wednesdays until 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8-Dec. 9. Free. Mills College Art Museum, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. 510-430-2164.

Catherine Wagner: Selections: 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Tuesdays-Saturdays. Thursday, Sept. 6-Oct. 6. Free. Anglim Gilbert Gallery, 1275 Minnesota St., S.F. 415-433-2710.

  • Charles Desmarais Charles Desmarais is The San Francisco Chronicle's art critic. Email: Free weekly newsletter:

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