The Iceman Cometh
Ever since man has been able to commit images onto moving pictures he's been imaging what it's like to leave the earth behind for heavenly bodies or galaxies far, far away. Georges Méliès sent a group of adventurers on le voyage dans la lune back in 1902, and though the resulting 14-minute short may feel merely cute today compared to the computer-generated cosmos created by special-effects technicians, it perfectly predicts the sleight-of-hand approach used to visualize what it looks like beyond the clouds in the minds of men.
And we are talking about guys here. Space and the endless possibilities presented by its very enigmatic existence seem to be a more romantic fascination for men: The X-Files doesn't quite work if it's Scully who's the true believer and Mulder the rational skeptic. You'll always find a guy behind the camera of what have become cinema's most memorable space adventures. And they were always aided and hindered by the available technology of their time. The back-lot dreamers behind 1950s, B-grade sci-fi reeks of Cold War paranoia (witness The Day the Earth Stood Still or Forbidden Planet) and has aged about as well as the Edsel. By the time you get to the New Hollywood brats who burned their souls and personal proclivities onto celluloid in the 1970s, the special-effects toys of the industry had become much, much better. Plus, thanks to actual space exploration, these young men had an inkling of what space looked like through a camera. As a result, there's a certain suggested reality inherent in Stanley Kubrick's blend of Jungian anxiety and corporate wasteland in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Steven Spielberg's extended childhood, which has stretched from 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind to 1982's E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial to this summer's stranger-in-a-strange-land saga A.I., however fantastic that reality may be.
Fort Worth artist Brian Fridge has been creating space on televisual media for about three years now, and he's been doing it by blending a bit of both low-tech trickery and scientific grounding: Think of it as Méliès meets NASA. By setting up a video camera and taping the swirls of ice crystals and vapor that form in his deep freezer, Fridge obtains a glittery, glistening black-and-white image that resembles a universe measured in light-years, not cubic inches.
The result is a series of silent video loops called "Vault Sequence," each new piece a numbered edition. Two of his most recent galactic swirls are on view at Fridge's solo show Composition in Black at Dunn and Brown Contemporary, "No. 10" and "No. 2 (Cycle Version)." A first encounter with these swirling images instills a sense of wonder. There's something undoubtedly otherworldly about them, even when you know it's taking place inside a home appliance. But the sensation tends to dissipate rather quickly.
It has nothing to do with the medium. Video--unencumbered by the temporal limitations of film and being a continuous feed rather than a series of stills--is the perfect vehicle to capture the transcendental aspects of imagery that recalls and/or is inspired by deep space. When looped, it can theoretically go on forever, or at least make you think it's just going to keep going and going and going. As such, the temperament of Fridge's "Vault Sequence" series is right on the money: The eerie silence, the suggestion that the sparkling images you see are eternally in motion, makes a bid for the sort of timeless infinity that is often associated with deep space.
Astrophysics, however, thinks it knows that the universe is not going to last forever and is pretty sure that it is finite in size. In the past century of star-gazing, reams of new and previously unknown data have given scientists the ability to compute with some accuracy indeterminate factors in understanding the cosmos, such as the density of space. Satellite exploration has beamed back images of star clusters and nebulae that are farther out than man had ever seen before, and since the speed of light is known, just how far out there these star formations are can be calculated within a certain margin of error.
But knowing something and understanding it can be two very different beasts. Knowing the universe is contracting and may end in about 1,000 years is one thing. But does it affect how you live your life as an earthbound being today? Maybe, maybe not. A millennium is a huge expanse of time that's difficult to wrap the human brain around. And it's the immensity of the situation, the exponential factors beyond the realm of life as we know it, that creates a tension between knowing and not knowing. Yes, we know more about the universe than we ever knew in the history of civilization. But space still feels infinite. It still seems vast. And if you've ever been out in the country, far away from the ambient light of a city at night, and turned your head up to gaze at the sky, you've probably felt not much different from the Chinese when they first saw Halley's comet back in 240 B.C.
The issue of size may be what's a tad anticlimactic about Fridge's video pieces. It's slightly unnerving to encounter a piece that's so reliant on scale to communicate its power. Fridge's "No. 10" is projected on an entire wall inside Dunn and Brown, and it's quite engaging. Opposite, however, "No. 2 (Cycle Version)" is seen on two television monitors, and it's not as involving. Seeing them both in the same room calls attention to how the size of the image influences how you respond to the work. You get the feeling that if Fridge were able to project a "Vault Sequence" onto a drive-in-movie theater screen, it would exude the sort of imposing awe that a small monitor simply can't convey.
That dependence on physical size doesn't adversely affect his Lambda prints one bit. For these works, Fridge used a still camera to photograph his freezer stars and scanned the images into a computer. He then formed collages of different photos into one composition. These digital files become negatives from which the Lambda prints are produced. (A Lambda print is made on a printer that uses lasers to expose traditional photographic material.) For this exhibition, Fridge shows two different varieties of prints: one that resembles his video imagery in that it's white on black, and others that are the inverse, black on white. These prints are each titled "Detail" and numbered, much as astronomical photos are named with geographical and temporal referents.
Where Fridge's video work sparks a wonder that recedes, his prints become more engaging the longer you look at them. The prints--especially the larger, black-on-white ones--possess a dramatic dynamism and epistemological insecurity that the video pieces can't touch. They resemble natural phenomena, but they obviously don't exist in nature. And as a result, they're very easy to get lost in, as if you're drifting through intellectual zero gravity toward you don't know what.
Even the medium is elusive. At times, the black-on-white image has the feel and texture of smudged graphite on paper, or the viscosity of pigment on canvas. Simultaneously, there's that crispness that photographically based images achieve best, a clarity of image that makes you believe the white-on-black prints are actual satellite photos.
These prints are so recent and new to Fridge that he doesn't have slides for them, but they may push his ice-cluster starbursts into more compelling territory.
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