Kenneth Baker reviews Jaq Chartier for SF Chronicle

Art grapples with science and politics

March 2004

SF Gate
by Kenneth Baker

Seattle painter Jaq Chartier elegantly handles a problem inherited from the modernist mainstream: how to give abstraction meaning without reference.

The problem lingers from the days when an ideological divide separated abstractionists and image-makers. Depiction disguised a painting's nature as a fabricated thing, practitioners of abstraction thought then. Imagery also ignored the etherealizing effect and spiritual implications that abstract work might evoke.

Chartier belongs to a generation that encountered abstract paintings first in representational media: slides and magazine and textbook illustrations. Reproduction turns abstractions into images, muddying distinctions between them that once seemed clear.

On display at Limn Gallery, Chartier's paintings resemble the bright striated or dotted patterns yielded by the laboratory technique known as DNA gel electrophoresis. That process involves injecting dye-coded DNA samples into a gel matrix and causing their components to separate by molecular weight, aided by electric current.

The paintings tell us nothing about the scientific process, though they do record an odd analogy between Chartier's technique, which involves dispersion of pigment stains, and the analytical procedure. The paintings speak to the largely unschooled public awareness of the science's aesthetic byproducts.

Chartier's pieces touch an unspoken popular confidence in the oracular powers of contemporary science. Credit their resemblance to stain patterns from DNA analysis, and we may see Chartier's paintings as fictional symbolic portraits of organisms. More parochially, her pictures update the stripe paintings of Kenneth Noland, mainstays of "post-painterly abstraction" on which formalist critics made their last stand in the late '60s.

Chartier's work also brings to mind the abstractions of Bay Area painter Tomas Nakada, which suggest magnified microbial stuff.

A certain redundancy already threatens to weaken Chartier's work from within, but she puts in the shade the eccentric, map-like paintings by Elizabeth Scheidl, also at Limn. Like Friedrich Hundertwasser, whose work hers recalls, Scheidl overestimates the interest of whimsical decisions.

Wagner in the laboratory: Bay Area photographer Catherine Wagner continues her exploration of the environments and equipment of scientific practice in recent work at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery.

The most striking images here describe vacuum chambers, elaborate precision instruments hand-wrapped in household aluminum foil to provide additional insulation. The black and white lambda prints -- digitally enriched emulsion-based images -- have a silvery immediacy that makes the images themselves appear made of metal.

If only Wagner let the images stand on their own rather than liken the devices in them to Frankenstein's monster. The pictures stir plenty of ambivalence on the viewer's part without the pop-literary reference. But then, the letters from an Arctic explorer in Mary Shelley's novel gave Wagner a reason to include Arctic Circle landscapes as images of the overweening curiosity behind science.

Conceptual and visual rationales come nicely into balance in Wagner's third series, devoted to obsolete models of crystals and their atomic structure. Some of the forms so resemble abstract sculpture as to make us wonder whether some influence of artistic modernism migrated into scientific thinking as the aesthetics of science opened a path for Chartier.

Mark Lombardi's networks: Mark Lombardi (1951-2000) had a very short art career -- fewer than 10 years. But his work found an audience early and is attracting many more admirers since the survey on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has been on the road.

Trained as a librarian, Lombardi became fascinated by the momentous financial and political scandals of recent decades. As he began his own research in public sources on events such as the savings and loan failures and the Iran-Contra affair, Lombardi began to diagram what he learned. His early sketchy notations evolved into the elaborate drawings now on view.

Lombardi's drawings look something like airline route maps. But rather than connect destinations, the arcs and arrows trace flows of money and influence among people and institutions, most of whose names are familiar. In "Oliver North, Lake Resources of Panama and the Iran Contra Operation, 1984- 86" (1999), the overall pattern suggests a sphere, giving form to the notion of a "global network."

No one can study Lombardi's work for long without feeling outrage, resentment and paranoia. He came as close as anyone has to making drawings about conspiracies. In the process he took drawing at once closer to fact and further from depiction than any other contemporary artist.