Meghann Riepenhoff – Ice
“I’ve got a blue motel room / with a blue bedspread / I’ve got the blues inside and outside my head.”
The color we identify as Prussian blue was first introduced to artists in 1724 when a Swiss color manufacturer named Johann Jacob Diesbach was in Berlin experimenting with iron salts, and stumbled upon what chemists now call iron(III) hexacyanoferrate(II), or Fe4[Fe(CN)6]3 . The paint was a huge success; prior to its invention the best blue pigment available to artists came from mines in Afghanistan and at one time cost more than gold. About 115 years later, Sir John Herschel, Talbot’s collaborator in his pursuit of photography, discovered that particular iron salts were light sensitive, and if ferric ammonium citrate mixed with potassium ferricyanide is exposed to light, it reduces to the same salt Diesbach used to make Prussian blue, resulting in a blue photographic print we now call a cyanotype (for the color cyan).
For years, I taught an alternative process photography class at Alfred University, a Bauhaus-esque art college in Western New York, and without fail I started the class working with cyanotypes. The process is the simplest and clumsiest, but also can be deeply gratifying and in the right hands can prove a remarkable tool for innovative photographic work (I liked to teach my students about John Dugdale, Christian Marclay, and Clarissa Sligh). Indeed, cyanotypes are so simple, and relatively safe for a chemical photographic process, that kits for making ‘Sunprints’ are often sold in toy stores. Christopher James’s remarkable book, The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes, expanded cyanotypes into entirely new terrain, encouraging a playful and experimental approach to salting, re-salting, and staining images developed using the basic chemistry of the process. The Alfred curriculum was designed largely by artist John Wood, whose pedagogy called for an adamantly material based approach to creative problem solving. James’s approach to cyanotypes and handmade photographic processes fit perfectly into a curriculum that asked its students to throw pots all day and make photographic monoprints by night.
It’s with all this in mind that I first walked into Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City to see a remarkable show of Meghann Riepenhoff at Yossi Milo. The exhibition featured large-scale cyanotypes of ice, created in a unique process in which the artist exposes and processes the paper at the same time, using water, icy temperatures, natural elements and salts of the earth in a process that can take anywhere from hours to days. The large format prints were breathtaking, with strange earthly yellows as the iron reacted with other minerals (buyers beware, this work isn’t meant to last!). All this molecular activity results in amazing textures and fluid patterns as the water flows over the paper gently leaving behind grains of sand and other materials to mark the surface. This is all punctuated with exquisitely detailed renderings of ice crystals, made “permanent” in the light sensitive salts as the water turned to ice. Sometimes these prints were displayed as single large prints, other times as multi-paneled pieces spread across the gallery walls. The pieces had an incredible spiritual quality; walking through the gallery felt a bit like being in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, with the sublime and transcendent qualities of the earthly elements creating and defining each of the prints.
With recent publications by Barbara Bosworth, Agnes Martin, Helen Frankenthaler, Tanya Marcuse, Shirin Neshat, Rania Matar, and Allison Rossiter, Radius has amassed an unparalleled collection of women exploring profound ideas about mythology, mysticism, identity, and the landscape.
Coinciding with this exhibition is a stunning new book of Riepenhoff’s work published by Radius Books, Ice. By any measure, this is a remarkably beautifully designed and constructed book, feeling like a unique art object itself. Full of rich colors and tones, Ice is a lovely companion to the exhibition, clearly articulating the artist’s ideas and discoveries. The book doesn’t read like an exhibition catalog, but instead another unique expression based on similar discoveries. It comes housed in a brilliant white slipcase, the volume inside constructed with a lay-flat binding and the same white stock used as a cover. Both the slipcase and the cover are laser-embossed, with different crystal patterns etched on the surfaces. Measuring over 11×13 inches, the reproductions are substantial. Each of the page spreads offers a detail from one of Riepenhoff’s larger prints, sometimes spanning across both pages of the spread, at other times, just single vertical pictures. Interspersed among the reproductions are seven sentences by Rebecca Solnit. Printed on a high-quality vellum, Solnit’s contributions flow like the water, reading abstract and mysterious allucations that hint at incredible ideas about the environment, feminism, art history, blue, and our deepest, most personal connections to the earth and our place with in it.
I think there is something more we can understand of Ice by looking more closely at the unique body of work being developed by Radius Books. With recent publications by Barbara Bosworth, Agnes Martin, Helen Frankenthaler, Tanya Marcuse, Shirin Neshat, Rania Matar, and Allison Rossiter, Radius has amassed an unparalleled collection of women exploring profound ideas about mythology, mysticism, identity, and the landscape. This is the publisher’s second book by Riepenhoff, the first now selling as a collector’s item. I can be a little hard on Radius at times, but this book feels like a wonderful example of what their design team is capable of, an example of extremely ambitious design skills used collaboratively to help us better understand the complex imaginings of one of the most unique artists working with photographic materials today.