“Buckled and Stained”: Jeremy Bolen at Andrew Rafacz Gallery

The following catalogue essay was written for Buckled and Stained, a solo exhibition by Jeremy Bolen at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Chicago, 2015.

“Isn’t it strange that we can admire comets, black holes, and suns — entities that would destroy us if they came within a few miles of us — and we can’t get a handle on global warming? Isn’t global warming now in the uncanny valley? Doesn’t this have something to do with art?”[1]

In Undark/Ottawa #1, one and a half electric clocks shine in the dark. The clock on the left is complete. It reads one thirty-five with a minute hand that has just hit the ten second mark. The second half-clock on the right appears ever so slightly in the past: while still one thirty-five, its minute hand is barely shy of the ten second marker. Both clocks bare the same vintage shape and ornamentation. One concludes they are the same clock at different instances. The second clock face is nevertheless obscured by shadow; a sheen of light clips its left hand side. Otherwise the Radiam glow of its hour and the eleven o’clock marker — vaguely resembling a finger print — minute hands, combined with a strange green-glowing smudge by are the brightest articulations of this object. They glow uncanny, bright, and almost nuclear. Like spectral energy or alien slime, the combined effect of fingerprint-ish residue and temporal marker begs investigation. One should examine the carpet for blood, perhaps, compare the finger print with those of known criminals or missing persons, perhaps even look for a bomb jerry-rigged to the clock itself…

All of those impulses of human forensics nevertheless overlook something fundamental in Jeremy Bolen’s work. His photograph, Undark/Ottawa #1demands the viewer move beyond a strictly anthropocentric approach, favoring instead the blurred intersection of human agenda and materials pregnant with nonhuman agency. It is a difficult step to take. Long standing western traditions have asserted a strict division between human culture and nonhuman nature, observing further delineations and hierarchies between conscious and unconscious, living and inert, human and animal. The trouble is that those delineations aren’t as stable as we’d like to think: computer viruses behave very much like the biological viruses we consider living; plastic — a decidedly “unnatural” or fabricated-by-humans material — has a habit of washing up on beaches, melting into the sand to form amalgamated rocks, only to get pressed into geological strata thereafter, merging with the “natural” landscape. These supposedly unnatural fixtures are thus muddling humanity’s systemic and binary approach. News coverage further reinforces that blur — every day some item contains reference to global climate change: Lake Michigan waters are rising, the Northwest Passage is open, there are earthquakes in Kansas. As the longstanding tradition of the nature/culture binary dissolves, the world expands exponentially out of human control to such an extent that it seems ever-more difficult — if not impossible — to achieve an overview as an individual. The life and times of objects and their respective — often invisible — potencies is impossible to grasp.

You can spectate ‘the universe’ as an ersatz object: you have the distance provided by the biosphere itself, which acts as a spherical cinema screen. Habit tells us that what’s displayed on the screen (like projections in a planetarium) is infinite, distant — the whole Kantian sublime. But inside the belly of the whale of global warming, it’s oppressive and hot and there’s no ‘away’ anymore.”[2]

In Sensors for the Unsound, Bolen at once embraces an enigmatic transhuman relationship, within which the viewer/artist human is an “unsound” participant. Ill-equipped to perceive the dynamic presence of material, Bolen emphasizes the assistance of nonhuman photographic paper. That tool becomes a “sensor” or tracking mechanism. In so doing, Bolen provides the semblance of a method, producing strange material equations with the visual compositions. Whether material screens, lenses of glass, or the photographic paper itself, the resulting works are consistently aware of their own framing and filtration devices. Bolen’s method moves toward understanding, while nevertheless acknowledging the limitations that make it suspect.

The second clock’s luminescence in Undark/Ottawa #1is a provocative remark of material: it is active, energetic — glowing with paint (called “Undark”) long since banned by the health department because it made factory workers sick with cancer. Still the old clocks are around. The paint hardly works by now — tired, as though susceptible to old age. Bolen had to devise a strategy to stimulate the “Undark.” First he left undeveloped film in proximity of the clock for long periods of time — this leads to the ambient patterning  of light on the print where it was exposed to the clock’s radiation. Then, he set a very bright strobe in his studio to stimulate the paint and then took photographs. For half a second the clock is luminescent — as you see with the clock on the right. Half a second later the paint dims. The final artwork is framed twice: first partially covered by a thin sheet of glass at once transparent and reflective; second by a larger sheet of photographic paper itself patterned with pearlescent greens, pinks, and ivories. The pearlescence is unstable, literally bathed in the chemical bath Bolen used to develop the clock image. Some residue of the radium was therefore captured in the wash, and now pinned again to the pearlescent paper. Its color will change over time. In this assemblage of frames, images, and materials Bolen captures a multi-temporal intersection of energy acting through material.

Bolen consistently challenges some fundamental assumptions about landscape photography, capturing the movement and energy of materials that comprise both landscape and image at once. In a sense Bolen collaborates with his environment, using the materials on site to produce experimental attributes within the final photographic art work. Those attributes are themselves vibrant. This is especially clear in the least photographic works on view, called simply Untitled. The frame of the object is comprised by a rectangular sea foam material used regularly as a fertile albeit not quite “natural” bed to cultivate large scale landscape installations: golf courses, corporate plazas, or parks. Bolen uses that material as a frame, plants seeds within that frame, and covers the seeds in a clear plastic rubber. The potential of the seeds remains dormant, preserved within the frame he constructed. That material — functioning somewhere between pictoral and sculptural — is similarly dormant, as its potential to assist and feed the seeds it contains remains unrealized. There is something vaguely apocalyptic about these combined potentials, pregnant with the capacity to gestate and produce life without human intervention — a tiny parallel the Svalbard Global Seed Bank in Norway. What are all of those seeds waiting for? Is Bolen’s representation simply a game of semiotics? And in that case, is Untitled so different from the photograph of a golf course?

August 9th, 2105 marked the 70th anniversary of atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — one of many instances in which the human leaves a lasting impression on geological time. This is not simply due to the footprint of the explosion itself, but also an invisible, energetic residue that infused materials otherwise (and traditionally) considered inert. One could make the case, therefore, that with atomic weaponry western civilization conceived the active engagement of its landscape in a whole new way. That awareness, assisted in part with humanity’s industrial development has spread: the slurry spilling out of mines into Colorado rivers, the radium washed out of the Undark factory and spilling into the Fox River Valley, or the on-going debates about fracking’s consequence. What those scenarios yield is an uncanny anxiety: humanity is not alone, but inextricably tied to a complex host of interactive materials. The debate exists because we cannot quite fathom our strange, more-then-human community, much less conceive feasible ways to adapt human civilization accordingly. At Ox-bow this summer, Bolen spent a month on an artist residency program during which time he developed much of the work currently on view. While there, heavy rains ensued. His car flooded. The only object inside of the car was a his copy of Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton. The book thus bears the traces of its encounter — pages buckled and stained with water marks. There is something surreal about the image of the iceberg on the book’s cover, winking at us. It’s twinned association with psychology and ecology reminds us that the full extent of our transhuman environment has not fully dawned on the collective human imagination.

“Spookily the picture frame starts to melt and extrude itself toward us, it starts to burn our clothing. This is not what we paid twelve bucks to see when we entered the art gallery. Human art, in the face of this melting glass screen, is in no sense public relations. It has to actually be a science, part of science, part of cognitively mapping this thing. Art has to be part of the glass itself because everything inside the biosphere is touched by global warming.” [3]


[1] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2013, 132.

[2] ibid., 133.

[3] ibid., 133.