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Unnatural Wonders

Soledad Salamé's works become more persuasive through distortions

"Islands, 2005-2006"
"Cloud Map in Orange"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/7/2010

Soledad Salamé: Barcodes, Atmospheres, and Islands

Through July 17 at Goya Contemporary

Fight the urge to project something horrible onto Soledad Salamé's pair of digital photos on Mylar, "Islands, 2005-2006"; things might only appear to be worse than they are. These images of what looks like overhead satellite images of small remote islands convey both a sense of awe and foreboding. The awe arrives from the omniscient perspective, the same sense of the infinitesimal that comes with viewing images of Earth from space or peering at the beating heart in an ultrasound: that rush of seeing something on a scale you're normally unable to perceive with the naked eye. In these two images, Salamé delivers the vertiginous thrill of looking at an isolated habitat in a single view--as if you're able to grasp the entirety of such a microclimate in a solitary glimpse, turning the ineffable natural world into a model railroad-sized curio.

Underneath that wonder, though, lurks this sneaking suspicion that something is amiss in this glorious sight. What's with that bubble of thicker liquid surrounding the island like a keloid layer? Are those smaller dots of green off the main island tiny, itty-bitty islands? Or is this island sinking? And why does the water look so black?

If Barcodes, Atmospheres, and Islands feels especially prescient, it's only because it opened within weeks of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion, which has horrifically pooled into one of the worst oil spills in history--with no end in sight. And ever since, overhead satellite imaging of the Gulf of Mexico has become the message delivering the extent of this disaster. The visual representation of the BP oil disaster speaks the same language as Salamé's works. And, well, you can't say she hasn't been offering fair warnings.

Knackish fusions of ideas and imagery have a habit of doing that. For more than a decade now Salamé's mixed-media two-dimensional work and three-dimensional installations have mined the natural world for visual inspiration, and the work itself articulates ecological concerns without resorting to alarmist pleas. She's not a naturalist in the sense of merely trying to mimic or represent the observable; her recent output has instead turned to exploring nature's responses as it is affected by and acted upon by man and technology. What she's produced is a body of work that in still imagery captures ideas of flux: how waterways move, the visual rush of falling water and the sort of physical force it can possess, how technologies such as Google Earth and weather satellite imagery capture the natural world, how coastlines change due to environmental factors, and how so-called civilization negatively impacts that environment.

Barcodes, Atmospheres, and Islands, however, unfurls something far more potent. Technology's ability to influence how nature is viewed--in effect, how it looks--bubbles to the surface of the 12 pieces included in this exhibition. Collectively they deliver a powerfully circuitous peek into fluid dynamics and their discontents.

Salamé's vocabulary here, though, is even more unnatural than it has been in recent years. The source ideas that informed locally exhibited pieces in the recent past--2005's Agua Fluida, 2007's New Geographies (both at Goya), and even "Where Do You Live? Three Thousand Miles of Maryland Coastline," her 16-foot installation at the Contemporary Museum last year--have been recognizable. The transformation from idea to object is more disorienting now. What at first appears most directly influenced by observation, a series of monoprints and silkscreens, reveal much more nuance on inspection. These prints--rather gorgeous swirls of inks--appear to suggest the movement of meteorological satellite imagery: as in, images of cloud formations. "Cloud Map in Orange" features two bands of blank ink across the top and bottom with tendrils like flexing arms curling into the space between them; a wash of orange coats part of the paper, giving the panel a sunset mood.

Up close, though, parts of the print become more inchoate and less finite. Across the lower edge and in the lower left-hand corner it appears the ink didn't take to the paper that well, as if there is a slight inconsistency in the printing plate. Elsewhere, black curves form little, amoeba-like circles in the orange streak across the composition, less island-like masses than submerged something or others. And if you stare long enough, the initial cloudy mood morphs into something far more difficult to pin down.

By "Breeze On Clouds I," the natural has been nearly overwritten. Rorschach blots of black ink and off-white streaks form jagged textures against an orange wash. Clouds feel less like an idea source and her vocabulary approaches the density of Gerhard Richter's illusionistic abstractions.

Salamé's introduction of technological distortions are the most arresting part of these new works, as using the technology's artifacts to mediate her image nicely corresponds to how the natural world is often experienced: on screens, through high-definition video cameras in ballyhooed documentaries, in satellite imagery, in Doppler radar images, etc. And by embracing distortions Salamé has started forming a singular vocabulary, one that resembles her previous output but is becoming wholly unique.

This vocabulary is best exemplified by her series "Islands I-IV," a quartet of multi-layered screenprints on Mylar hung to form a square on one of Goya's gallery walls. If these "Islands," like the "Islands" image discussed above, originate from similar source material, you'd never know. These "Islands" are chaotic morasses of opaque white covering snatches of green and a dead-grass yellow, and their surfaces look as anarchistic as the hectic layers of ink. Any observable natural element gleaned from these images is a projection of the viewer and, quite frankly, trying to triangulate natural analogs for "Islands I-IV" is a fool's errand: What you see is something nature hasn't intended yet. And the implication is that when technology gets the better of the natural, well, the result is something never quite encountered before.

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