Thursday, July 5, 2012

Saul Melman 'untitled: work in progress'

Saul Melman's residency at BoxoHOUSE provided a very fresh perspective on how the challenge of working with the site and the environment could drive a project forward.

I had thought that Saul, who I know primarily as a sculptor who incorporates a performative element into his work, was coming to do a week-long research residency toward a sculpture-based project next year. While this was in fact true, Saul redefined the notion for me by arriving with the elements of a  complete approach that could be scaled up next year in a medium that wasn't strictly sculptural.

Inside the camera obscura

Saul arrived and proposed that he turn the outbuilding/studio-to-be into a camera obscura. He took his inspiration from considering the desert's most abundant resource - light, and had shipped ahead watercolor paper, liquid silver gelatin and safe lights. Having thought about turning BoxoOFFICE in NYC into a camera obscura, I was immediately enrolled in the process. He also brought along supplies and a manual for creating pinhole camera. 

The camera's tiny aperture

Saul jumped into the process feverishly and proceeded to black out the almost 500 sq foot space with tape, heavy plastic and moving blankets given to me by Austin Thomas when she installed A Perch for BoxoHOUSE in April. This was no small task as the space is not yet insulated nor cooled in the desert summer heat. By the second day, he had successfully created the camera obscura as well as fashioning and testing a pinhole camera from a box given to me by Lady Bee. The latter was a wonderfully circular moment as Lady Bee had supported Saul's major projects at Burning Man in her decade long role as curator on the Playa.

Studio/camera setup
First pinhole camera image

The camera obscura projected a full image of the east side of BoxoHOUSE into the darkened space, upside down and backwards (exactly a the naked eye sees images before the brain autocorrects). Saul's intent for using this perspective was creating links with prior residents and the image included a large panel of the FROST DRAWING FOR JOSHUA TREE, created during Gosia Wlodarczak's residency which launched the BoxoHOUSE program. The first test pieces revealed a wonderful gestural quality evocative of charcoal drawings.

Image quality highest in the early a.m.

I was fascinated by the camera as well as by the use of crafted photographic paper and offered to assist Saul in the days ahead. Saul's tests had revealed that the best images were generated at sunrise and into the morning. So 5.30am was our call for the next fours days. Coffee in hand, we trudged out to what had now become the studio, to play somewhat and thereby make the work. 

Saul's tests had already determined that the exposure time was up to about 18 minutes. He had prepared papers the night before and stored them in a large improvised safe bag. We taped up a sheet, covered it with a blanket, Saul left the camera, and I exposed the image. Using what was at hand, a stepladder and pie tins that he had brought to create pinhole camera apertures, Saul began to compose on the canvas of the side of the house. He also played with moving the sliding doors, creating vertical lines at various intervals. 

Props at the ready

When the exposure time was up, I covered the image, Saul re-entered the camera/studio and began the alchemy of developing the images. Then a rush to the outdoor tub to wash the paper down. It soon became apparent that Saul's non-shiny form was not being captured by the silver gelatin and he was  free to move across the canvas, rearranging elements in a rhythm that he determined.

Bathing the silver gelatin

I became very accustomed to the beat of the process. And it was fascinating to be inside a giant camera. It struck me that this was also like being inside one's head and I was glad that there was a safety light on at all times (sic). At the end of the first day's shoot, Saul had several images of interest and had also exhausted the supply of large papers. He ordered a rush delivery and then retreated to the studio to test making images with his digital camera shooting the frames projected by the camera obscura inside the studio.

That evening over dinner, we discussed the day's progress. Saul posited the performative aspect of the analog images and we discussed how the viewer might understand this aspect of the work. We arrived at the idea of showing Saul manipulating the ladder, pie tins and doors through a series of digital still that might form a stop animation. 

untitled: work in progress

5.30 am and back into the camera/studio coffee in hand. We began a series of exposures, each taking a minute to capture and process. Saul needed to hold each position for 30 seconds to minimize blur and so we developed a language of beats on the studio door to indicate when I was about to shoot and when it was safe to relax. This became the percussive soundtrack to the performance. Occasional cellphone contact cleared any questions either of us had. At the end of about 5 hours, Saul had approximately 160 images to work with. He processed them into a stop animation and we watched over lunch. Surprise.

untitled: work in progress

What emerged most clearly was how the shadows moved, minute by minute. A shadow of the mulberry near the doors danced across the horizon (patio slab inverted) until it disappeared. The shadow of the eaves on the side of the house brought a solid line marching up (down inverted) the canvas until it filled the space entirely. Time, progress, movement were all clearly marked by the desert sun. The movement of the pie tins and the doors also resembled a musical score. This energized Saul further and he quickly came to the idea that making a stop animation utilizing all of these elements would be more compelling than a piece documenting the making of the silver gelatin pieces.

untitled: work in progress

Meanwhile, the paper reinforcements had arrived and Saul worked late into the night preparing 20+ pieces for exposure the next day. 5.30am, coffee, studio, mount paper, Saul leaves, expose, Saul composes, time, cover, Saul returns. Repeat. Repeat.... 15 images made at exposures from 13 to 18 minutes each. process improvement - Saul returns each image to the safe bag to batch process later on. Late lunch, debrief. A Palm Springs-based collector and supporter of high-desert art efforts visits, accompanied by a gallerist. We enjoy lively conversation and a warm moment in the camera obscura. Afterwards, Saul goes about processing late into the evening. Some challenges as silver gelatin slides around on the paper. Most of the images are saved and a late dinner is consumed.

untitled: work in progress

 Final day of Saul's stay - 5.30am, coffee, studio, digital camera, knock, shoot, knock, knock, relax. Repeat......200 images captured. Saul and I had been discussing local affairs and I had filled him in on my involvement with Transition Joshua Tree, a local movement that is taking on issues that big government is not moving on, at least for smaller communities: water, energy, economic development, permaculture... He began to think of the pie tins and vertical lines as musical notation and then came to the idea of heliographs - a messaging technology used over large distances in the fields of military, surveying and forestry. The context of urgency and the response of communication to neighbors became a potential framework for the final piece to be.

That afternoon, Saul took off for LA and then NYC. He had accomplished a huge amount and I had learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed his presence. I look forward to seeing the final results of his time here and invite you to view them at the exhibition at BoxoOFFICE that opens October 20 2012. 

Read an interview with Saul Melman about his time at BoxoHOUSE and more on art-rated: link

Cheers Saul!

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