Curator's Essay - Seeing is Believing

Curator's Essay

Seeing is Believing? Nate Larson and Will Shank: Miracle PhotographsSeeing is Believing Poster

In 2003, the College Art Association's Art Journal devoted its fall issue to the theme of exploring what the editor called "Close Encounters:" in this case, the intriguing intersections between photography and the paranormal. The articles and image portfolios in this provocative issue combined to provide insight into "the complex alchemy between emerging technologies and inexplicable occurrences, between vision and visions."

Indeed, the history of photography is inextricable from the history of paranormal investigations, from the popular nineteenth-century "spirit photographs" to more modern attempts to document unexplained phenomena and prove the existence of such mysterious entities as UFOs and Bigfoot. The (now seemingly naïve) assumption that photographs must speak the truth-that, because they are the products of machine "technology" they don't contain the ability to lie or mislead-was a central theoretical supposition based upon which inventive photographers could demand credulity from viewers unversed in the chemistry and tools of the photographic process. (To photographically document a mystical event or occurrence meant that it "really" happened.) And some wonderful art has resulted from both creative and scientific excursions into the realm of the speculative; an outcome made possible, perhaps, by our own spiritual desire (our mysticism) to make manifest what we believe to be implicitly present, but what most often remains invisible.

This very human desire to "see" the miraculous, the wish to witness officially the unexplained or confirm the truth of the extraordinary, underlies the photographic projects of both Nate Larson and Will Shank, and the images in Seeing is Believing skillfully position the viewer as both objective observer and subjective believer.

Chicago photographer Larson recreates miraculous events, unexplained phenomena, and what he calls "found narratives," producing images that on one level validate belief in these occurrences and on the other call into question such convictions. Images such as Tortilla Manifestation (2001), where the face of Christ emerges from the singed surface of a Manny's tortilla, present objects and narratives taken from actual reported miracles, but they do so in the form of visual reenactments, completely staged by Larson. According to the artist, "this visual project is neither an affirmation nor a denial of my personal beliefs but rather an examination of how belief is constructed in our culture and how it shapes our lives." Larson toys with the idea that by presenting a situation in an objective, seemingly scientific way, the measuring device of the ruler-the tool of scientists and detectives alike-can make anything appear to be "real." For example, in Recovered Thorns (2001), what appear to be three thorns rest in a small glass dish tagged with an information card attached to a string. Beneath the dish, a 6-inch ruler has been placed, as prominent in the image as any other element. Within the syntax of the image itself, all information is of equal value although each element appeals to a different way in which human beings process information (in this case, by empirical perception, by the classificatory impulse of language, and by the scientific convention): we experience the thorns themselves, we read the text on the note card informing us that the thorns are from the biblical Crown of Thorns, and we have a cultural understanding of the ruler, which stands in for the cognitive claims of science by giving us "reliable" or verifiable information that cannot, therefore, be disputed. Thus scientific knowledge combines with subjective faith in one's sensory organs to ground the truth of such sacred phenomena.

Akin to Larson's presentation of "facts" are other cultural projects which seek simultaneously to interrogate and dispel our inclination to believe intuitively or objectively, the information that is presented to us in a convincing fashion. At Los Angeles's fascinating and cryptic Museum of Jurassic Technology, for instance, one is welcomed into the darkened exhibit space that, as its brochure attests, "provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities." The "voice of unassailable institutional authority" as Lawrence Weschler has called it, suggests the legitimacy of the museum and its collections, but one comes to question this persuasive assertion during a stroll through the galleries, which are filled with objects like the Horn of Mary Davis of Saughall (an "extraordinarily curious horn which had grown on the back of a woman's head" according to the wall label). It is merely the mode of presentation that convinces us; that is, the reality effect is produced by the framing apparatus and the pseudo-institutional setting. When we take a closer look at the unusual and unlikely objects themselves we begin to suspect trickery.

As Larson has noticed, quoting Lewis Hine at the beginning of his (Larson's) artist statement, "while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph." Of course, to this end, photographers have always constructed what they claim to discover, even those early practitioners who professed to be after purely documentary results. The muckraking photo-journalist Jacob Riis, for example, well-known for exposing in his groundbreaking work, How the Other Half Lives, the deplorable conditions under which late-nineteenth century immigrants lived in the tenement districts of New York, was known to have staged some of his photographs of brawling street urchins and drunks. Not that this detracts from their power as referential images-after all, the message of reform was what was important, and the manipulation of the contents of the image for positive ends (to effect changes in the laws which governed the lives of slum residents) seems politically justified in retrospect.

Similarly, Shank's large-scale color archival digital prints, are also re-created "documents," but based upon a particular spiritual manifestation that came to light in the late 1990s in Monterrey, an impoverished area of Mexico-the "miraculous" appearance on rose petals pressed into prayer books of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Christ. A trained art conservator, Shank was at the time of the discovery chief conservator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In that capacity he was approached by Fox TV to serve as an investigative expert for a program titled, "Signs from God: Science Tests Faith," in which the Monterrey petals were examined closely in order to determine if they were indeed "miraculous," or if they were simply the result of a clever hoax. It turns out that Shank was able to reproduce the appearance of the Monterrey likenesses using undisturbed petals after experimenting with several different techniques (and hence to many viewers, to demystify the miracle).

The result of the artist's ongoing research into creating recognizable imagery on fresh rose petals, the prints in Seeing is Believing utilize Shank's own petal creations, which approximate closely the look of the actual Mexican petals. Lit from behind and enlarged via photography, the resulting images from Shank's Milagros Falsos series ("false" in the sense that they are admittedly fabricated by the artist, but what about the "miraculous" Monterrey petals themselves?) are breathtakingly beautiful and mysteriously surreal, presenting both the remarkably detailed apparition and the uncanny vein-like surface of the rose petal itself. How he achieves such clarity in the petal apparitions remains a mystery, the secret held securely by the artist. The result is, of course, (and we are glad of it) that the enigma remains undisclosed. Says Shank, "Faith is a powerful thing. It can overcome logic and reason, and it can make black white. I do not debunk anyone else's beliefs, and I feel strongly that faith can transform matter. Whether or not that is the case with the rose petals in Mexico, I do not know."

Raised German Lutheran in York, Pennsylvania, Shank later attended Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, and then immersed himself in the world of Catholicism while living abroad in Italy and Spain. Although he rejected the basic tenets of each of these individual faiths, Shank "developed a fascination with the hoopla surrounding the [Catholic] religion itself. I loved the smell of the incense, the feel of the wooden rosaries, the tones of the chanted ceremonies in Catholic churches. Growing up Protestant, I had experienced none of these extreme sensations in my white-bread church. The Catholics had the great STUFF."

If the ruler (both literal and metaphorical) is Larson's way of incorporating the aura of scientific objectivity into his ritualized images, for Shank, the correlative device would be the magnifying glass, which within Western culture has been known to serve the investigative purposes of both the scientist and the detective (e.g. Sherlock Holmes). Shank's enormous rose petals, enlarged to many times their original size, hover before the viewer, fading in and out of focus as one examines the intricacies of both the organic structure of the petal and the astonishing image that appears on its surface. The rose petal images are vague yet unmistakable; there is no doubt as to the figure being represented. We are given just enough information for purposes of identification-no more, no less-so that the quiet beauty of both the image and the object is almost overwhelming. When one comes face to face with one of Shank's actual petals, as in Reliquary of the Sacred Heart (2005), a collaborative work included in this exhibition by Shank and his partner, U.B. Morgan, which incorporates an original Shank rose petal as an object of possible veneration, the object's preciousness is heightened even more, and the viewer may even consciously choose to forget that it lacks status as an authentic relic. According to the UC Davis horticulturist who examined the Monterrey petals along with Shank, "to me, every rose petal is a miracle." Perhaps this is the overarching point of Shank's incredible photographs.

Although Larson's and Shank's works both tackle some weighty issues-the nature of faith and its many permutations in today's culture-it is also clear that all is not serious here. On the contrary, for both artists, humor is used as a way of gaining access to the unknown. Of the rose petal image JP2 (2005), for instance, which captures the likeness of the late Pope John Paul II, the artist insists that the image first appeared during Shank's recent sojourn in Rome, "THE DAY AFTER HE DIED in April. No kidding!" And Larson's witty Li'l Dale (Earnhardt Incarnation) (2002) exposes America's obsession with and reverence for "heroic" sports figures when he turns his attention to the miraculous goat born in Florida shortly after the death of race car driver Dale Earnhardt. Exhibiting a distinctive fur pattern with a clearly formed number "3" (Earnhardt's racing number), the barnyard creature had been identified as the reincarnation of the NASCAR star.

Amusing or not, Larson's and Shank's photographic projects are informed by the same artistic, scientific, and religious imperatives that define what, exactly, it is that we "know" and what, in contrast, constitutes the realm of the "unknown" or the impossible. By taking the unknowable seriously (if often with a comic twist), they complicate our assurance of the known-what, after all, do we really know, if the impossible is possible? The answer to this question is not in the art, but the art alerts us to the endurance of such philosophical and spiritual conundrums.

Molly S. Hutton, Ph.D.
Schmucker Art Gallery

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