Peter Coffin “Cosmolology + 1″ – Herald St

15th January – 20th February
Herald Street – 2 Herald St, London

An odd astronomical discovery, emailed to me recently by Peter Coffin, features a white dwarf, a broken-down former star, fo­ur thousand kilometers across and made of solid diamond.

The title of Peter Coffin’s third exhibition at Herald Street is Cosmolology + 1. If cosmology is the study of the universe (from the Greek cosm-, universe, order + -logy, systematic study of), then cosmolology is the systematic study of the study of the universe, and +1 perhaps the study of the study of the study of the universe. And so on.

In the first room there is an installation of seven neon lines, wriggling vertically from floor to ceiling, representing the seven colours of the Newtonian spectrum. Dimly lit, figures moving through the gallery might occlude each other to create rainbow shadows receding across the gallery floor and walls.

Like all post-Newtonian experimenters with colour, Coffin’s installation interrogates the subject’s bodily experience of the coloured object. If Goethe’s writings explored the physical and optical experience of pressure on the retina, Coffin’s work harnesses the bodies of the spectators, as well as the physical presence of the coloured tubes of neon gas, to block one another, creating a shifting experience of obstructed and variegated colour.

In the second room are eight photographs of clouds.

These images are fantasies, they are not the smooth, possible skies that fill-in the background of landscape paintings, slight and uniform, insipid and interim. We have instead multi-coloured compositions of slightly grainy, meteorologically impossible clouds, blue sagging cumulous next to orange streaking cirrus; in fact these clouds have pockmarked, photographic skins, they are muddy, uneven, contoured differently from one another, some full and some slight, some blown out and thin and some plumply pixellated.

Coffin’s images treat a historical lacunae, a secret of nineteenth-century landscape photographs. Due to the colour sensitivity of collodion photographic processes, the blue sky would register a blank white in the exposures required to photograph a landscape. Because of this, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century photographers would insert stock clouds into the image in the darkroom using a composite method which involved exposing a negative that depicted clouds over a separate photographic negative of a landscape or seascape. Photographers came to re-use their own glass cloud negatives. As an unintended result specific clouds frozen in glass negatives would appear in landscape photographs over different sites, at different times, in multiple images over decades. Coffin has culled these recurring, overlooked clouds from images by nineteenth-century photographers, among them Mathew Brady, Gustav LeGray, Francis Frith, Roger Fenton, Eadweard Muybridge, Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar Rejlander, and Eugène Colliau.

The space Coffin’s orphaned composite clouds inhabit seems unreal and dreamlike. They were never before the subject of any picture, but rather the hapless background noise. Suddenly central, the siteless clouds seem almost abashed, seemingly moving skittishly along a horizontal current, some small, some large, in a strange field with no vanishing point and no horizon.

Coffin’s cloud composites capture the real splendour, the historical complexity, of the photographic image. Their hybridity is to me the ontological state of the photograph, a moment in which the “truth” of photography and its complex relationship to reality and history, skepticism and imagination, the secret history of its trade techniques of falsification, is captured in its purest sullied state. That green cloud or this orange wisp appeared to create the illusion of authenticity above sites which never bore the shadow of their wispy passage. We can wonder over what kind of Scottish landscapes or American battlefields, French forests or Swedish seascapes these unique and obscure smudges of vapour previously presided, and for a moment or two we are let into the mystery of their multiple, serial incarnations.

This series is a precursor for an even more surreal project in which clouds in the sky will by dyed with colour using a crop dusting plane and food colouring.

The third piece in the show is a waterfall of green vines over a doorway.

Coffin’s project lets us into this mise en abîme of the study of the study of the study of the cosmos. These subjects and our wonder at them are real: colours, and clouds, the growth of plants, a diamond star. And then he turns his mirrors back on the ways in which we organize our wonder, the theories and techniques and stories we invent to contain and represent to ourselves these real phenomena which inspire: That Newton declared there were seven colours to echo the logic of the seven notes in the musical scale. That to render a realistic-seeming landscape photograph necessitated the imagination and audacity to burn a sky with foraged clouds. That we make art itself.

Coffin’s show takes as its subject our techniques for accounting for wondrous phenomena, his work re-presents these unattended and spectacular fictions to us.

(by Maika Pollack – from press release)

Image Credits:

Peter Coffin
Untitled (Clouds)
Digital C-print
69.5 x 92.5 cm / 27.4 x 36.4 in framed
Ed. 1/1 + 1 AP
Courtesy: Herald St, London