Antonia Kuo: Mercury and Salt
February 2 – March 12, 2022
In 2014 Carol Squiers curated a show at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York entitled, What is a Photograph? Mercury and Salt, Antonia Kuo’s recent exhibition at Chart, offers a canny response to this question: “How can a photograph become a painting?” Kuo’s title, Mercury and Salt, references two of the compounds central to alchemy, and with this invocation of alchemy Kuo suggests an analogical connection with photography. Here mercury corresponds to the silver nitrate molecules in photographic paper and salt corresponds to the sulfates that fix the image. If the goal of alchemy is to transmute dross matter to a “higher” state, Kuo’s aim in Mercury and Salt is to transform dross photography into painting.
The checklist describes the twelve works (all 2022) in the exhibition as “unique chemical paintings on light-sensitive silver gelatin paper.” In essence, Kuo is using the chemigram process, a relatively little-known technique, for her chemical painting. A chemigram is made by applying photographic chemicals to silver gelatin paper in room light, without the darkness that typically cloaks most photographic operations. Conventional prints are processed relatively quickly in the darkroom. Chemigrams, by contrast, can be worked on for days or weeks, time enough for Kuo to selectively apply coats of developer, toners, dyes, and fixer to her paper. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the chemigram process is that the practitioner can rearrange and alter the chemical steps in the service of whatever effect she desires. It is even possible to reverse the inevitable darkening of photographic paper, something Kuo manages in the pale blues of Milk of Sulfur. In Solaris, the densest work in the show, dark blues shapes tangle with brown and black forms. Kuo’s blues are produced by iron-based toners—they are chemically related to the familiar Prussian blue of cyanotypes and blueprints. Like all the tones and colors in Mercury and Salt, these blues lie below a glistening coat of gelatin that covers the surface of the paper.
Throughout Kuo’s work there is a tension between flatness and illusionistic space. Kuo uses stencils and adhesive masks, and these technologies necessarily create a sense of planarity. In a work like Fruiting Body, however, deep illusionistic space is evoked by overlapping gestural images of leaves. The composition recalls Pollock’s 1953 painting, The Deep, with its yawing void in the center. In Kuo’s work layers of black and brown foliage open on to Winsor green forms, creating the feeling of a tropical glade. Kuo’s stencils in Fruiting Body and other works recall David Reed’s use of the same device to duplicate brushstrokes in his new paintings. If Fruiting Body only suggests depth, perspective makes a full-fledged appearance in Oculus. In this work a strange carpet depicting a shining sun hangs from a railing in front of a shallow storefront whose geometric flooring encourages a reading of spatial recession. This odd vignette is bordered by rows of precisely arranged “shards” (of what?) arranged parallel to the picture plane. These shards, oozing with squiggly black forms, are covered with hand brushed violet dye and reassert the flatness of the picture surface.
Sitting next to Oculus are the stunning Emission I, II, and III (all 2022). Each panel teems with a profusion of abstract figura in dark espresso, chocolate, and flat white tones with hints of orange and tangerine. Stringy, irregular verticals, circular shapes, silhouettes of tropical plants, and lattices interlock, while filigrees of tiny hairline tendrils brush against hard-edge rectangles. To my eye the triptych resembles exploded views of machinery reminiscent of Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23), with its synthesis of biological and inanimate forms.
Five small works on the east wall of the gallery are looser in technique and have more air than the larger works. I was particularly struck by Cream Copse, where curly hand-drawn lines describe a clump of beach grass growing in pale sand. In Twin Columns, strokes of chartreuse that appear to have been drawn with a quill pen cover two vertical blocks of squiggly, abstracted “text.” And finally Hiraeth, a work of great lyricism and mystery, depicts a field of windblown green and orange grain set against a black sky. It’s a simultaneously ominous and hopeful painting, all too appropriate to the present moment.