by David M. Roth

In the early 1970s, a small cohort of artists began seeking out 19th-century methods to restore to photography the sense of alchemical magic it once had. Photo historian Lyle Rexer put a name to this activity.  He called it the antiquarian avant-garde, a contradictory term that brilliantly summarized what, in the wake of digital imaging’s depredations, has since become a full-fledged movement.  What began as a trickle (Adam Fuss, Jerry Spagnoloi, Gabor Kerekes, Laurent Millet) now feels like a torrent.  Locally, its adherents include Binh Dahn (daguerreotypes), Chris McCaw (heliotypes), Meghann Riepenhoff (camera-less cyanotypes), Ben Nixon and Stephen Berkman (collodion) and Robert Buelteman (electricity-generated photograms) to name just a few. 

 Éric Antoine | Arbre VIII,  2023 | Ambrotype | 11.75 x 11.75 inches

French photographer Éric Antoine, a one-time journalist, joins their ranks using ambrotype.  This laborious 19th-century process typically involves coating a glass plate with a syrupy substance (collodion), bathing it in a ferrous sulfide solution to make it light-sensitive, loading the plate into the camera for exposure and then developing it.  The entire procedure must be executed within minutes before the collodion dries.  The resulting positive images can be seen on over 40 glass plates, now on view in Abodes, Antoine’s third show at Dolby Chadwick.

 

It contains several series made over the past two years, some parts carefully assembled in the studio, others made in situ outdoors.  Though they feature different “subjects” – small boxes, a forest, moon-like orbs, rotting stacks of bound books – what appears before the artist’s lens isn’t necessarily the subject of the photographs.  More often than not, they’re more about the emotional reaction generated by the process than by what’s pictured, an orientation that aligns with Pictorialism, a movement that sought to elevate photography to the status of art by borrowing painting techniques, most notably atmospherics achieved by chiaroscuro, blurring and sometimes outright fictional additions and manipulations.  The show features a dozen such small-scale images, the largest of which measure 15 ¾ x 15 ¾ inches.

 Éric Antoine | Cerveau XXXI,  2023 | Ambrotype | 15.75 x 15.75 inches

Arbre VIII, for example, shows a partially denuded tree trunk with a protruding thorn, its bark-covered midsection looking like a knobby knee in sharp focus.  It’s an odd specimen, to be sure.  But it’s the swirling, blurred background, created with a vintage lens, that makes the scene kaleidoscopic.  Abodes, the title series, consists of boxes of varying sizes stacked one atop the other.  Apart from the metallic sheen imparted by the chemistry involved, there’s little to savor in these.

 

Other pictures into which the artist inserted a small orb border on surreal.  Cerveau XXXI shows what looks to be a black 8-ball hovering atop a stack of deteriorating books; its shimmering black-and-silver tonality and decrepit state, reminiscent of  that seen in Anselm Kiefer’s lead books, makes it the exhibition’s clear highlight.  Elsewhere, two forest scenes from the Useful Lies series feature a white sphere at the center, their incongruous appearance calling to mind the dots John Baldessari used to blot out faces in found images.  In the La Forme series, Antoine strips away all pretense of representation by opening the aperture of his camera to the light, yielding what appears to be a blurry white orb against a black background centered in the frame: an image of nothing.  In so doing, the artist reduces photography to its essential elements: shadow and light – a departure from the self-consciously arty pictures involving figures he staged several years back.  Proof that in photography, as in so many things, less often equals more. 

 

 Éric Antoine | Useful Lies XIII,  2023 | Ambrotype | 15.75 x 15.75 inches

Éric Antoine: “Abodes” @ Dolby Chadwick Gallery through April 27, 2024.

 

About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher, and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions.  He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review

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