A Pale, A Post, A Boundary

A Pale, A Post, A Boundary is comprised of a range of works: gelatin silver prints, plaster cast works for the wall, and a set of freestanding sculptures–all emblematic of the investigatory approach we find in Jerry Birchfield’s practice.

No matter which of these processes the works adhere to, they are all deeply rooted in a concern for the multilayered operation of images and the roles of the components that make them perceptible including representation, materiality, and spectatorship. With that in mind, the works invite viewers to trace the source of their origin and the processes by which they were made, purporting that this mental tracing is as pertinent to an understanding of the work as the image-objects themselves.

The gelatin silver prints, parts of an ongoing series titled Stagger When Seeing Visions, begin with black and white 4x5 negatives that depict assemblages made from detritus in the artist’s studio. These negatives and materials are then taken into the darkroom where photo paper is subjected to a series of processes including projection printing, photogram, cliché verre, solarization, multiple exposure, bleaching, and toning. The resulting traces of material and chemical procedures acknowledge the photographic capacity to record and refer. These prints take various final forms – mounted, matted, hinged, framed, cut, torn, embedded in plaster, and formed into freestanding sculptures.

The mounted prints function as images in the proper sense. They are photographic, in that they were made by a series of photo-based darkroom processes, but they do not necessarily depict in ways typically attributed to photography. They drift somewhere on the middle of a spectrum between abstraction and representation where content floats behind murky surfaces invoking ghosts (some friendly, some not) of Surrealist and Modernist darkroom explorations. Parts of depicted content remain legible, while others are only nameable as shape, form, light, tone, texture or mark. Depiction and process, staples of photography, come close to running aground and reveal themselves as parts operating with the intent of pointing to a reflexive set of referents–compositions found or made from detritus in the studio, the fundamental indexical photographic language of light and shadow, the material paper surface and myriad darkroom processes by which they were made, the generative iconic and symbolic capacity of these images to form moments of recognition and meaning, or perhaps in some collapse of time and space we are looking at representations of the other works in the exhibition that surrounds us.

Some gelatin silver prints are mounted to museum board and cut through to operate as mats for smaller prints. In another iteration, a tattered print appears to have been rescued from some tragic accident within the studio. It is loosely hinged over another print that has lost most of whatever photographic image was presented on its surface. These works point to the pictorial framing devices present in much of the work and to physical borders cast into some of the plaster works.

Although presently material, the plaster cast wall works are images in their own right. They hover between and signify sculpture, painting, and drawing processes all at once. However, this multilayered set of media references operates within a world formed by photographic image and material relationships. The process that produces these pieces is as follows: first, a cut gelatin silver print is placed in a shallow mold. Then, plaster is poured onto the print filling the surrounding cubic space. The dimensional surface is formed when the wet plaster causes the print to warp, fix and mount in position as it dries. The surfaces are re-leveled with a flood of enamel paint then treated with graphite. Some pieces are sanded back to reveal these built-up layers while others might be subjected to this entire set of procedures multiple times.

Finally, a set of sculptures, referred to as Pales, are made of plaster and concrete-coated gelatin silver prints. They appear to be made by interrupting the processes described above. Although here, the prints are stood on end to dry and fix in place. These works are presented on glass-topped powder coated steel stands positioned as a divide through the gallery space. In these works, there is a delicate balance between material relationships as the form of the curled prints act as armatures for the plaster and concrete that has assisted these photographs in their attempt to stand upright. These works are presented in a range of forms–some left open exposing the front and back of the print in the round, some are fully closed, and others are filled to the brim with material–reminding that images are always operating as vessels engaged in some degree of disclosure and concealment.

- Jerry Birchfield, 2021

Asleep in the Dust

This practice is like two narcoleptics generously fighting to stay awake long enough to carry, or at least to start, a conversation. Each speaker—only partially aware of the other’s nodding—carries on without regard for a listening ear. However, in more honest moments, just before dozing, they continue self-consciously, hoping to be heard. Both participants emerge from this rhythm of sleep at different times, slightly embarrassed, unsure if caught, and completely uncertain about the facts try to sort out what was said and heard from what was thought and dreamt. They improvise while carrying on in ambiguous responses—at this point, the only visible way forward without total confession. Awake, then asleep again, absorbing and translating whatever information may have been encountered during semi-conscious states. All content begins to levitate, becomes malleable, and is reshaped into a form yet to be determined by the effects of its new surroundings.

Here, dust is made of words and images, (remnants), flour and plaster, and guitar solos and stolen goods. These components hang in the air while they combine in the referential work of each other. Then, this dust slowly settles, covering all surfaces inside and out until it is again disrupted and circulates in search of a new resting place. The words and images do their best while the paint and glue treat, cover, seal and mend remnants that have already been used. The flour, valued almost entirely for its potential, awaits another purpose while the plaster casts vessels and models and broken bones. The myriad supports lie around before they are eventually repurposed. They are built up, then torn down and stripped back. The studio absorbs these objects, materials and subject matter. Then, through a process of assembling, framing, staging and imaging, they reemerge in slightly more conscious states, prepared for the work of seeing and parsing. The resulting forms are fixed and activated to engage participants on new terms: upright, mobile, and unsure.

In this space, there is no force. Or... there is so much force in correct amounts and in correct directions, that it all remains suspended, as if in a magnetic field or an anti-gravity chamber or some imaginary realm capable of levitation. However, the slightest effort can shift one form into another. Surfaces touch, meet, and stick together. Residue from one form transfers to the surface of another so that they are only seen through the veneer of each other. At times, these layers are so thin that their presence and effect goes unnoticed. Although mostly familiar, something feels altered about the forms beneath. These layers are looked through–sensed rather than acknowledged. At other times, the layers are so dense that the identities of the forms they cover are overlooked. We try to sort out what was said and heard from what was thought and dreamt, but only the surfaces are seen and the load-bearing armatures that support both their histories and their weight are forgotten altogether.

- Jerry Birchfield, 2018

Yes, They Were Made to Level

Yes, They Were Made to Level is a manifold and ongoing project that has taken form in several iterations. It existed at once as a set, a zine and as an exhibition that brought together photographs, objects, materials, audio, performance and spectators within a makeshift architecture. Now, Yes, They Were Made to Level is in its current iterations as book and folio formats.

Through the multifunction of these formats, Yes, They Were Made to Level expands the scope of focus beyond a singular manifestation to make visible all components at play in the simultaneous production of itself and its image. In 2015, the studio acted as a staging ground for what became Yes, They Were Made to Level – the outdoor exhibition at the Sunroom in Cleveland Heights, OH. Simultaneously, the studio acted as a set for the production of photographic images that were published in Yes, They Were Made to Level – a zine that functioned as a catalog for an exhibition that had not yet happened.

The objects and environments within the scope of the project were made, from their inception, with installation, photography and page layout in mind. Within the exhibition at the Sunroom, on set within the studio, and on the printed page within zine and now book, the frail objects, materials, and environments serve as sculpture, props, installation space and sets that shift in function depending on how the works are framed by these various formats.

The title, Yes, They Were Made to Level, comes from an answer to my question about the function of holes in the concrete driveway on which the exhibition was to be first installed. While concrete layers and homeowners might know perfectly well what holes in a driveway are for, I had no idea. The holes were curiously placed, but intentional, purposeful, with function in mind. After imagining possibilities followed by my inquiry, the answer came from Jim Spittle via text message:

“Yes, they were made to level. Yes, they were made to level it. Sand is forced through them. Now only weeds grow from them.”

I was amazed by the weight of his answer. The holes were made to level the concrete slabs of the driveway as the ground beneath shifted, re-righting the surface and masking the shifts below. However, they had not been used for some time and were now filled with earth and weeds. The holes and this answer about them seemed to do everything I needed them to do. In some ways, they were already doing everything I was trying so hard to achieve.

Since the holes break the surface of the concrete, they allow one to look both at the surface of the material that frames them and through that surface. The irony and perhaps most powerful thing about those holes is that they accomplish two things at once – (1) a leveling, a fabricated correction, a masking of the shifting content below; and (2) inversely, they make themselves and questions about their function visible, foregrounded and known. They call attention to themselves as the thing that allows this leveling, this masking, this fix to occur – a cover-up and confession in one. Thus, they mask and reveal themselves as the culprit, the publicist, the masterful P.R. rep–great hair, white teeth. "Listen to me carefully, every word I say is 110% a half truth. Everything is going to be fine. Nothing has happened or will happen here that you need to worry over. And if it did, do you really want to know about it?"

This concept and space became the foundation of Yes, They Were Made to Level. All components within it were and are now all incapacitated and full with referential potency – each operating as itself and its image. Large quantities of flour were used within the installation space, covering the surface of the floor on which viewers walked. Here, parallels are drawn between flour as a material that is valued almost entirely for its potential and the latency present in all components of Yes, They Were Made to Level. Each component can be visually and mentally isolated for a time then reabsorbed within its place simply as one element or fixture that did its job to produce the space from which it almost escaped, whether it be the object, photograph, studio set, book page, sound, performance, spectator, or provisional exhibition space.

There was a terrible thunderstorm on the night of the opening. As the rain came down, the outdoor exhibition welcomed the result of the weather on its changing form. The flour did everything it was supposed to when mixed with water. Only here, the other ingredients were sculpture or art or props, and spectators or participants or performers within an exhibition or set. The thin architecture billowed in the wind while the now drenched objects morphed and slumped. The sound of the storm mixed with Rural Carrier’s drones and swaths. Spectators fled and photographs, videos and conversations were continued from the shelters we found. Somehow, nothing seemed more fitting than sculpture wilting in front of spectators at an exhibition that declares its purpose to level.

- Jerry Birchfield, 2016

An Inside for an Outside

The leftovers of everyday circulate in and around a practice of looking and making. The two realms often overlap and merge. The things used, found, and discarded become the objects of central focus. Arrangements between happenstance and precision are recognized as an already active plate ready for registration within the frame. The objects reminisce of their quotidian function, but only partially and quietly. They were and are now more and less than that. The image allows them to be seen this way, as incapacitated and capable.

Debris, leftovers, the aftermath of other efforts, materials only partially identifiable–like the scene after an accident or disaster–only too clean for that, too controlled. And not the kind of unidentifiable that happens in real life after the car crash or flood, not the kind with real loved ones and family, this is the kind that happens on a primetime drama–the kind where nothing graphic is ever shown or seen, nothing vulgar, and if it is, it is theatrical enough that we know it isn’t real, it couldn’t be, not like this. It is too clean because it is contained. We can see its edges; we can see where it ends.

This un-identification deals in senses, or things already known. Specificity without…. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have more, that we don’t know. Broken pieces of wood and dust and dirt don’t have much more to offer anyway. Here, they are the filler, the stand-in, and the placeholder. They are the articulation of their representation–an acknowledgment of what they do now rather than what they used to be. To know more about their past is pointless and besides this point.

The debris is real, and so is the space in which it exists. It is perhaps as real as the sidewalks on location during the filming of a motion picture, or the scenery carried on and off stage between acts, or the fake fruit and thirty-year-old assortment of things excavated from a storage closet for an Intro to Drawing still life assignment. It is real in that sense, but its purpose here is to be seen by the camera, as the photographic and nothing more.

A contamination between found, fabricated, leftover and central produces this subject matter–these works, these props, or these manifestations of my total commitment. Can you believe it? I don’t, no one does. If the debris generated by the studio represents an attempt at making or the overly theatrical performance of it, or maybe the aftermath, or the leftover, then its representation turns into either documentation of such acts or the next iteration for which the material and performance was always intended.

Then there is the wall, the perimeter, the frame–equally imaged, generic, and evasive–somehow more or less significant–supportive or central, or both. As peripheral, it emphasizes its center by disappearing–the space between its four sides, the picture, the work. As central, the frame dismisses the interior as a placeholder, but knows it is necessary if it is to uphold its form and function as frame, wall, or support.

The solarizations are citations or simply amazing effects. The images work to seduce and remain empty–the effect without the result (There is never no result). Is it a template, a placeholder, or the real thing? What is it dependent on? The frame? Please. How about the effect as effect and nothing more?

Material constructions that question the intention of their construction. A material plane, which already supports a picture, is compressed in a shallow space with the image plane of the photograph. Once photographed, the wall, table, or ground, and the photograph for that matter, are illuminated as the thing they always were, the image of themselves. The image-object that hovers over, lies upon, or just beneath its surface allows each plane to fulfill its supportive role.

We know that it is separate from us and somehow still the same, still present, parallel even. It doesn’t need much space, perhaps the between space of Brassai’s Graffiti, or the imagined depth of Fox Talbot’s Lace. Can the depicted work take the fall and allow its external parallel to survive? Or are they attached and destined for the same fate–whether it be failure or greatness? Is the imagined space between them enough to parse that blame or that praise? On whom and what does it depend?

The exterior becomes the interior and gets trapped. It is trapped between the thing it prefers to ignore, the thing it is embarrassed to admit, and the position of critical austerity that it prefers. It is the thing it hates and spends its time trying to convince you otherwise.

- Jerry Birchfield, 2014