There’s a heightened sensitivity to properties of water in drought-stricken California. Here, we think of the contents of each flush, or the ethics of a swimming pool. This has a way of making us appreciate the aesthetics of liquid. The dozen weirdly wonderful black-and-white photographs by Alejandro Almanza Pereda on view at the San Francisco Art Institute through October 3 don’t immediately suggest their reliance on water, but they’re photographed in underwater conditions that confuse the appearance of weight and buoyancy.
The first photograph on view is titled Apparent Weight, 2015, and it concisely introduces the general elements of this exhibition: It shows an opaque bag, an object that contains air and yearns to float out of the frame, except that it is anchored by a dumbbell. There are formal connections between these objects, but the image also prompts viewers to rethink how gravity functions in water. The pictures have a fabricated-to-be-photographed approach also seen in Daniel Gordon’s elaborate constructions and Sara VanDerBeek’s totemic sculptures, though the athletic narrative underlying Almanza’s process activates his static shots of cinderblocks, Styrofoam shards, fruits, vegetables, and vases doing what they do when submerged in liquid. Things you expect to rise sink, and vice versa, or structures block floating objects, making them appear to defy gravity. The uncanny scenes seem to be altered in some way, but they are, in fact, straight photographs taken in unusual conditions.
The production apparatus, which was visible to gallery visitors in July and August, resembled a lively Rube Goldberg laboratory, with racks of thrift store finds and a makeshift tank surrounded by rickety scaffolding. In phase two, the bulky tank has been removed and the resulting unframed photographs have been directly adhered to the wall, with minimalist quietude.
The majority of the pictures manage to express the idea of delicate balances with modernist grace, yet also reference the ephemeral subtext of the nature morte. Like the flowers in a Dutch still life, these set ups didn’t last much past the click of the shutter. Almanza also created a video of studio vignettes, some witty, some poetic, in which flowers ascend out of a vase and playing cards rise in slow motion. It reveals the magic of the project—an uncommonly successful combination of levity and gravity.