“Liz Deschenes is a photographer who, in the best modernist tradition, pushes against the basic terms by which photography is conventionally defined: instantaneity, veracity, fixity, or reproducibility,” writes curator and critic Matthew Witkovsky. Indeed, Deschenes uses durational photogramatic exposure to create unique, shifting surfaces that frequently function as sculptural or architectural rather than photographic objects. Deschenes stages the technical components of photography, both contemporary and anachronistic, while reflecting, compressing, and assessing the architectural settings that surround them, through her mirrors’ simultaneous repopulation and evacuation of these spaces.
In her earlier work, Deschenes utilized landscape images as an entry point to address self-reflexive concepts of the medium. Her Elevations series utilized the rich and dense dye transfer color printing reminiscent of the golden age of Technicolor films, a process discontinued by Kodak in 1993. The project staged the seven standard colors developed by cartographers to represent ranges of the earth’s elevation to produce a gradation of corresponding monochrome photographs. Deschenes’ Blue and Green Screensforegrounded the invisible screens typically used as the invisible basis for special effects and absent background imagery. In her Moiré series, Deschenes photographed a sheet of perforated paper filtering the light coming through a window, and superimposed the ensuing negative with a duplicate on an enlarger to create an abstract, moiré pattern image. The result is an optically oscillating, dazzling body of work grounded in the manipulation of a single negative.
In her recent work, Deschenes exposes photographic paper to the night sky, develops it, and fixes the photogram with silver toner, creating misty silver surfaces brindled with slight changes in hue – affected either by exposure to ambient light, or the hand-application of the toner itself. After the photogramatic process creates these unique and varied surfaces, the works are mounted on aluminum or Dibond. Some of these photograms remain unframed and tend to oxidize over time, further problematizing the role of the photograph as fixed image on surface. Instead, purged of representational content, the photograph functions as an object that records how it has been, and continues to be, acted upon. The series originated with Tilt / Swing, an installation of six such “silver mirror” panels arranged in a 360-degree floor-to-ceiling configuration at Miguel Abreu Gallery, based on a diagram that 20thCentury architect, designer, and artist Herbert Bayer drew to accompany his essay The Fundamentals of Exhibition Design. In her second iteration of the Tilt / Swing installation, the photographic panels were fully exposed to daylight, and brought to black in the development stage. Deschenes’s subsequent individual silver and black mirror works stage the same time-based photographic processes in an energetic rather than taxidermic language, allowing variations in framing and size to act in myriad ways upon the surrounding conditions of display.
Rates (Frames per Second), Deschenes’ 2018 exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery, furthered her inquiry into the history of image production techniques and the conditions of viewing developed in previous series. The seminal installation took the proto-cinematic experiments of 19th-century scientist and chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey as its point of departure, and was comprised of four equally wide, monumental multi-part works that span the length of entire gallery walls. The viewer was immediately engaged in a rhythmic progression through space, as he or she passed by a succession of thin strips of silver-toned photograms positioned at a constant interval from one another. The phenomenological experience produced by this rigorous sequencing of space is akin to a physical impression of time passing, of the body’s movement being captured in formation. The installation’s second half was comprised of slightly concave photograms that refer to Marey’s diagrams, which recorded human steps with the use of photosensitive paper. In line with Marey’s approach, Deschenes’ works are not stand-ins for experience like pictorial photography, but instead point to the material conditions of their production and display.
Liz Deschenes (b. 1966, Boston) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988. Her work is held in the permanent collections of the Centre Pompidou, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, The Art Institute of Chicago, ICA/Boston, the Pinault Collection, the Aïshti Foundation, the Israel Museum, the CCS Bard Hessel Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the V-A-C Foundation, the Princeton University Art Museum, the Corcoran Museum of Art, and the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In 2021, she participated in True Pictures? Contemporary Photography from Canada and the USA curated by Stefan Gronert at the Sprengel Museum (Hanover), Off the Wall at SFMoMA (San Francisco) and This Inconstant World at the ICA Los Angeles. In 2020, Deschenes’ was included in Material Meanings—Selections from the Constance R. Caplan Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 2019, she participated in Luogo e Segni, curated by Mouna Mekouar and Martin Bethenod at the Pinault Collection –Punta della Dogana (Venice). In a series of two-person exhibitions with Sol LeWitt, Deschenes’ work was mounted at Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco (2017), Miguel Abreu Gallery and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York (both 2016). Her work was the subject of a 2016 survey exhibition at the ICA/Boston. In 2015, Deschenes presented solo exhibitions at MASS MoCA and the Walker Art Center, and was included in group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Musee d’Art Moderne, the Centre Pompidou, and Extra City Kunsthal in Antwerp. In 2014, her work was featured in Sites of Reason: A Selection of Recent Acquisitions at the Museum of Modern Art and in What Is a Photograph? (International Center for Photography, New York). In 2013, she exhibited new work in tandem solo exhibitions at Campoli Presti (Paris and London), and group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Fotomuseum Winterthur, among others. In 2012, she was included in the Whitney Biennial and had a one-person exhibition at the Secession in Vienna and a two-person exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago that she co-curated with Florian Pumhösl and Matthew Witkovsky. Previously, her work has also been exhibited at the CCS Bard Hessel Museum, the Aspen Art Museum, Klosterfelde (Berlin), the Walker Art Center, the Langen Foundation (Düsseldorf), the Tate Liverpool, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Recent monographs dedicated to Deschenes’s work include Registration (Paris: Three Star Books, 2022), Liz Deschenes (Boston: The Institute of Contemporary Art, 2016) and Liz Deschenes, Secession (Vienna: Secession, Berlin: Revolver, 2012). A survey exhibition dedicated to her work, Works: 1997-2022, is on view at Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, through August 2022. Additionally, her work is currently included in the 2022 edition of the Geneva Biennale: Sculpture Garden, Shifting the Silence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and Une seconde d’éternité, at the Pinault Collection, Paris. Deschenes’ work will be included in Put It This Way: (Re)Visions of the Hirshhorn Collection, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.