TERRA INCOGNITA: Curator's Essay

TERRA INCOGNITA

Carissa Meier is frank about her “ability to mimic through impression and impersonation”. Colleagues, teachers and celebrities have all been grist for her verbal mill. She admits a transference of this talent into her visual explorations, but says: “I can never create the thing itself, I can only try to mimic through observation, intuition, and experimentation, using materials and methods that then create something entirely of its own”. Her title, “Terra Incognita”, reminds us that we are on an expedition to unexplored places that challenge our cognitive assumptions. We must stretch to recognize a landscape comfortable enough to inhabit, or at least to visit. In fact, Meier’s works compel their own reading and never conform to comfortable equivalents. 

Reminiscent of other contemporary artists, such as Meghann Riepenhoff and Alison Rossiter, Meier exploits the micro worlds of controlled, photo-chemical interactions. Her use of cyanotype and Van Dyke processes demonstrates a love of materials as well as the wonders of limited predictability. The processes she employs are often analogous to those exhibited in the landscapes we conjure when attempting to reconcile her images. Chemical fissures and striations are reminiscent of tectonic fractures. Stains of blue, green, violet, orange, brown and yellow mimic those found in volcanic soils and subarctic tundras. Meier’s work however, enjoys the ontological benefits of multiple technologies. Photographic technique is applied generatively, so her experiments with drawing, toning, folding, and re-photographing produce extremely subtle modulations of figuration and spatial effect.  She uses light in multiple stages of image development, and has even included actual fixtures into some works–a tenacious luminosity that alludes to astral emissions and vaporous ambience, yet returns the viewer’s attentions back to the agents of production. 

Is “lifelikeness” a reference to an image’s resemblance to another object, or to its own materiality- its own objectness? The best of Meier’s works wash over you and demand complete attention. They are not “like” anything, yet arouse multiple associations– one state giving way to another. As we navigate the experience of each level, we are forced to apprehend multiple considerations and levels of involvement. Meier is unapologetically forthright. The residues of process are raw and revealed; to perceive her work symbolically would be excessive and disingenuous. When writing about 19th Century artists Rodin and others, Robert Morris references their “registering the plasticity of material in autobiographical terms”; referring to the traces of sketching and process that remained in the completed work, he asks, “how to get beyond the artist’s hand?” Morris demands a “more direct revelation of matter itself (through) investigation of means: tools, methods of making, nature of material”. 

Photography is inherently about representation, but there has always been a discrepancy between the image and the photographic object. In many ways, it is this connect/disconnect that drives the photographic enterprise. Gombrich maintained that “all art is image making and all image making is rooted in the creation of substitutes”. But what happens when an image both corresponds to and conflicts with our expectations? How far can the artist stray when making a substitute, and when does the substitute stray so far from indexing the real, that it attains independence and, ultimately, a new identity? There’s a unique tension between what appears familiar and reconcilable, versus that which is unknowable and enigmatic. This wavering experience is what Carissa Meier’s work is all about. 

Jay Wolke

Professor

Columbia College Chicago