Catherine Wagner: Clues to Civilization

Jessica Silverman is pleased to announce Catherine Wagner: Clues to Civilization, an expansive survey of photographs by the artist created from 1982-2014 that runs from July 9 to August 14, 2021. The exhibition comprises four series of works from Wagner’s career: American Classroom, Realism and Illusion, Reparations and Rome Works. Spanning over three decades, each of the series are fortified by a rigorous examination of knowledge creation and transference, reckoning with collective historical foundations and the concept of the body politic. Working as a conceptual artist through the medium of photography, Wagner places the enduring crisis of the human knowledge order front and center, using the inanimate to reconfigure dominant narratives and systems of thought. This is her first solo exhibition with Jessica Silverman.

Beginning in the early 1980s and first exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the American Classroom series includes black-and-white photographs of American schools and learning environments. The works are evacuated of human subjects and depict empty classrooms, written text left on chalkboards, or a poignant creative writing story displayed on an early computer; objects are personified and haunt the image-plane, showing residues of human activity. Realism and Illusion from 1995 is a subversive analysis of Disney theme parks in Tokyo, Orlando, Paris and Anaheim. Works in this series such as Gendered House and Southern California Landscapeclosely examine the illusory nature of built environments and the coercive, constricting nature of archetypes, particularly when they originate from a singular gaze driven by American culture.

Two works included in the exhibition from Wagner’s Reparations series traverse the history of the prosthetic splint, responding directly to the circulation of images of war and violence that condition the contemporary present. Moving away from essentializing images of human pain, the artist instead photographs splints and prosthetics from throughout history to show the body as both a resilient and political instrument. The most recent series in the exhibition from 2014, Rome Works, are photographs of galleries and sculptures being conserved and restored at historical institutions such as the Musei Capitolini and Palazzo Altemps. Works such as Artemis/Diana re-contextualize Classical sculpture to puncture conventional narratives of icons. In the photo, a sculpture of the Greek goddess Artemis’ torso is suspended in an electric blue strap, complicating the God of the hunt’s mythological legacy as a woman who could not be tied down.

As a conceptual photographer, Wagner operates in the shared legacy of Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gordon Matta-Clark, Liz Deschenes, Sharon Lockhart and Doris Salcedo, whose works amalgamate varying disciplines and take shape in the photographic form. The artist’s work is in the permanent collections of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal; de Young Museum, San Francisco; The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London.

Catherine Wagner (b. 1953, San Francisco, CA) is the recipient of the Artadia Award, Dorothea Lange Award and Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, among many other accolades. Her visual arts fellowships include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Aaron Siskind Foundation, and Weizmann Institute, Israel. Wagner’s work is in the permanent collections of Museum of Modern Art, NY; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; Library of Congress, Washington DC; Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; Tate Modern, London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Bibliothèque National de Paris; Museum Folkwang, Essen; Museum of Modern Art, Bologna; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; LACMA, Los Angeles; SFMOMA and De Young Museum, San Francisco. Wagner’s work is commemorated in monographs, including American Classroom, Home and Other Stories, Art & Science: Investigating Matter, Cross Sections, In Situ: Traces of Morandi, and Place, History and the Archive.