Spirit photography goes back as far as photography itself, but historically the form has tended to take one step forward followed by two steps back. William H. Mumler discovered the visual power of the double-exposure in the 1860s, then passed himself off as a medium capable of capturing ghosts on film. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was so enamored of the mystic Crewe Circle and its founder, spirit photographer William Hope—who utilized pre-exposed glass plates to create images of ghosts—that the author wrote a book defending Hope against his adversaries. The Soviet inventor Semyon Davidovich Kirlian and his wife Valentina Khrisanovna managed to photograph an electrical effect known as a corona discharge in 1939, which would decades later open the way for “aural” photography: a new kind of spirit photography for a New Age kind of sucker.
After discovery comes quackery, but fortunately, at least in photography, after quackery comes art. Enter artist Carlo Van de Roer, who reclaims the advances of Kirlian photography from the parapsychology of aural photographer Guy Coggins. For “The Portrait Machine Project,” now on view at Randall Scott’s H Street NE gallery, Van de Roer employs the AuraCam 6000—essentially a souped-up Polaroid Land Camera that Coggins outfitted to interpret a subject’s bioelectric feedback. Van de Roer’s portraits are a testament to photography’s limitless capacity for pulling its past into its present.
Van de Roer administers his portraits the way that Coggins intended: Subjects hold a biofeedback sensor that measures the heat, sweat, and electromagnetic output from their palms. This data—or if you prefer, the person’s qi or prana or aura—is then rendered as a second, fuzzier photographic exposure. A portrait of artist Terence Koh depicts his aura as a field of an eschatological shade of green, whereas the aura of photographer Martynka Wawrzyniak reads like a mushroom cloud.
It’s up to the viewer to interpret what a person’s aura means (and it was the subject of some scholarly debate in the 1970s). Coggins, helpfully, built in a schema for reading auras, divided them into three arbitrary regions corresponding roughly to current mood, future vibes, and energy output. Van de Roer adopted the Coggins system for reading aural photography, so we know, for example, that the deep blue and violet hues in his portrait of artist and director Miranda July represent the highest vibrational frequency a person can omit. (The camera-generated readouts can be found alongside Van de Roer’s portraits in a book, The Portrait Machine Project, which is available at the gallery.)
Of course, the way that the viewer interprets Miranda July’s aura depends in large part on how the viewer responds to July herself. (I like to think of Miranda July as the original template from which her flawed-but-lovable clone, comedian Kristen Schaal, was imperfectly copied.) There are a lot of edgy cultural types in Van de Roer’s portrait series, including Koh, July, and Wawrzyniak (and, not on view, Richard Kern and James Frey, among others). Beyond endowing the project with social capital, the presence of so many famous art-world figures is Van de Roer’s way of signaling that this is principally a project about photography—even if figures who are notorious in their own right, such as Koh and July, are bound to inspire eye-rolls among in-the-know viewers. Some of these characters don’t need photo-mystic acupuncture to project a dubious aura.
As an overall project, Van de Roer’s principal achievement is technical. Coggins, to be sure, never got photographs like these out of the AuraCam 6000. The specialty rig both opens up Van de Roer’s investigation and severely curbs its potential, a restraint that he wrestles with. The surface of Van de Roer’s prints is rich enough to eat with a spoon, but the actual information a viewer can gather from the portraits—the clarity and detail provided for the figures—is limited. Nevertheless, Van de Roer coaxes pro prints from his gimmick camera. Up close, the two individual prints that make up a diptych portrait of Maris Bellack read as two different color fields: yellow (“Sunny, Exhilaration”) and green (“Healing, Teaching”). But viewed from a distance, the striking similarities outweigh the fuzzy differences.
Van de Roer hasn’t set out to falsify a bogus premise or expose a pseudoscientist. Instead, he gets that the subjective is the only realm that the camera ever captures. Ghosts or no ghosts, it all comes down to tactics. If anything, Van de Roer is elevating Coggins as an innovator, admitting him into a peer group for which aura photography is a valid advance.
“Permanent Summer” At Civilian Art Projects to Sept. 7
Every so often, a show comes along that connects all the dots, revealing the history of a style that has permeated culture to the point of becoming commonplace. Those shows don’t usually take the form of an art sale. Yet “Permanent Summer,” a poster and print sale at Civilian Art Projects, manages to be illuminating and really fucking rad at once.
There is a certain persistent category of vernacular image, found most often on garage-rock album covers and DIY show flyers—and it’s hard to describe, but I might try by saying that it’s gnostic Byzantine imagery and vintage Disney design by way of painter Elizabeth Murray and plenty of LSD—and this style characterizes dozens and dozens of the screen-printed works on view. That’s because “Permanent Summer,” which was curated by Michelle Cable (of Panache Booking), Rob Corradetti (Killer Acid), and Mike Zimmerman, is practically a tribute to David Sandlin, a longtime School of Visual Arts instructor whose carnal comic-book illustration style has been endlessly reproduced.
Viewers (or shoppers) don’t necessarily need to know the influence that Sandlin has had on a generation of Rhode Island School of Design grads to see it at work in “Permanent Summer”—from the wall-sized wheatpaste installation by Montreal’s Seripop (a printmaking duo that used to be one-half of the noise band AIDS Wolf) to the mutant-magic prints by John Dwyer (the Providence-born guitarist for Thee Oh Sees and Coachwhips and other sassy, fuzzy bands). That this influence is so keenly felt—and that it’s demonstrated by screen-printed posters, T-shirts, stickers, and other stuff by some 30 artists, including even a sculptural installation by Bert Bergen—should be a draw for anyone who’s ever taken even the slightest interest in comic art bordering on the deranged and perverted.
But the uninitiated should take note: Those who can’t laugh with this stuff are in for corneal damage.