Elizabeth McAlpine’s series of 10 photographic works is elusive, even deceptive, but not in the way we typically think of photography as being. It is not that what they show may not be what we think it is, but that we are not sure what they are or what they show. Although they were made by an artist whose work has been characterized by her exposure of the means by which filmic and photographic images are produced, and therefore by an emphasis on medium over narrative, or medium as narrative, it is at first difficult to determine their medium. Plate-thin and mostly hung on the wall, the works are based on the square or rectangle—to this extent they resemble a painting or photograph—but their matte black surfaces reveal a white aggregated texture that one associates with frottage. Are they blackboards marked by chalk? No, because their corners have dog-eared folds. (Two are folded into the angle between floor and wall.) Rectangular and circular magnets are arranged on the surfaces, implying a metallic component.
The methodological inscrutability of the works involves the viewer in a process of deciphering that is analogous to the effort one brings to decoding an image. They could be paintings, drawings, photographs or sculptures, and they have qualities of each. A year ago, McAlpine began making rubbings of paving stones that she subsequently subjected to a series of technical experiments. Photographic emulsion was applied to both sides of the paper, impregnating it with a semi-transparency that functioned as a negative through which to project light onto photographic paper. Unmarked areas registered as black, the rubbings as white. The folded corners represent the fragmenting of the individual stones to fit the “mosaic” of a pavement, and signal McAlpine’s attraction to particular formal configurations she happens upon. The prints were ultimately mounted onto metal plates, explaining the magnetic pull.
The protraction of my technical description reflects the protracted process one undergoes in apprehending the works. Layers of contradictory associations are revealed. One of the most primal acts of causal representation—a rubbing of the ground under our feet—has produced an ethereal image, which might depict the mottled surface of the moon or a nocturnal landscape through a fine mist. A “down-to-earth” motif has produced objects invoking the most rarefied of art forms—modernist constructivism. The shadow of Malevich’s Black Square (1913) is present, as is the reduction of painting, by Robert Ryman or Frank Stella, to what Michael Fried has called “deductive structure.” But the folds, breaking the plane, have a metaphorical import: they are ruptures in the categorical cohesion of the formalist art object, setting the works off-balance. They are turns at which the abstraction of geometry cedes to the intimacy of memory. The magnets suggest a cartographic diagram with their rectangular blocks as cars or buildings. The illusionistic depth implied by this reading contradicts the one-to-one scale of photograph to paving stone, opening up the works from a negative of drawn marks to aerial views of cityscapes. These are, after all, representations of the ground the artist walks on, and are, therefore, autobiographical documents. The magnets, through their attraction, embody our desire to perceptually penetrate the images. Invoking the magnetic pull of the metal backing, they connote the fact that the photographic paper has an image of rubbing on both sides: there is another image partially revealed by some of the folds. Something is being uncovered, unearthed, restored to the light. When McAlpine explained to me the difficulty of storing these fragile works to prevent damaging the folds, she said, “Paper has a long memory.”
With “Flatland,” the British artist Elizabeth McAlpine took film to its core elements: stock, light and projector. The show borrowed its title from the novella by Edwin A. Abbott that chronicles the story of “a square” discovering the three-dimensional world. In McAlpine’s exhibition, though, the narration was minimal. There was no distracting imagery in the works shown; viewers were confronted instead by the sheer materiality of the medium. In Tilt (in 6 Parts), 2009, six Super 8 projectors are stacked on top of each other and linked by a single loop of film. A column of six pale rectangles—the projection of white film frames—flickers onto the wall. Intermittently, a single red frame appears, descending from one position to the next. This jolly little color field brings to mind the dancing abstract shapes of an Oskar Fischinger animation; it’s a quick pulsation of warmth disrupting the mechanical procession of whiteness. The red square also functions like a refrain, giving the piece an almost musical quality.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of “Flatland” was McAlpine’s investigation of filmic temporality—not in the sense of a story’s development or a film reel’s unspooling, but of the film stock’s life span, which is short. In Tilt (in 6 Parts), thin streaks have appeared on the white frames; some look colored, the scratches acting as miniature prisms. Hurrying through the projector toward its own end, the film comes to embody the frenetic course of existence. From non-image, the film becomes a memento mori.
In Pan (in 2 Parts), 2009, a pair of large projectors are displayed side by side. Again, the machines are connected by a single loop of film, this time showing a broken horizontal line: a shot of a thread pinned to the wall of the artist’s studio. Staging the poetics of a simple piece of string, Pan (in 2 Parts) has the quiet strength of a Fred Sandback sculpture. If Tilt (in 6 Parts) can be seen as a still life, Pan (in 2 Parts) is a landscape, the line a minimal but definite horizon, distant yet tangible. During my visit to the gallery, one of the projections, I was told, was unusually shaky, but this accident of technology enhanced rather than hampered the piece’s impact. “Flatland” was a moving homage to the beauty of film’s idiosyncrasies.