Before there were photographs made with cameras, there were photograms – or, to use Henry Fox Talbot's 1834 term, “photogenic drawings.” Put an object on light-sensitive paper, add strong illumination and a shadowy picturee appears – without mediating machinery.At Von Lintel Gallery, a selection of seven photograms (plus seven conventional photographs made with multiple negatives) by German artist Floris Neusüss show how camera-less images have periodically been re-embraced. Neusüss’ photograms, dating as early as 1971 and as recently as 1997, are silhouettes of life-size figures.
Two mostly documentary works, their contours suggestive of paper-cutouts, show L.A. artists Joyce Neimanas and Robert Heinecken, who also made photo-based works without benefit of a camera. Another sets a profile figure against a building whose windows offer a glimpse of a photographer’s studio within. That the figure recalls the stiff formality of an ancient Egyptian wall painting yields an aura at once rudimentary and reverently antique.
Three abstracted female nudes feature flame-like bodies, since the figures only partially touched the light-sensitive paper during exposure. Light seeped around and beneath their torsos and limbs, and the bodies may have moved.
The fluid results are distinctive. Pinned to the wall and hanging loose, like scrolls, they exist somewhere between traditional Japanese ink paintings and the 1960s “anthropometries” of Yves Klein.
Klein’s models pressed their paint-smeared bodies against large sheets of paper to make latter-day versions of Matisse’s landmark “Blue Nude” painting and collages. In a photogram, the conventional photographic distance between subject and image is likewise collapsed.
Neusüss’ photograms are less technical innovations than they are cross-disciplinary meditations on aesthetic fundamentals, regardless of time or place. Their perhaps surprising sense of intimacy comes from the simple knowledge that human bodies actually touched the paper that we’re looking at.
Neusüss spells it out in the final work, in which a young man hanging a black rectangle on a wall stands on the silhouette of a chair to reach the top, while the actual chair abuts the photogram. A whimsical image of ephemeral existence, it’s like a picture of Peter Pan trying to get his purloined shadow back.