Catherine Wagner: In Situ: Traces of Morandi at Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco

Catherine Wagner, In Situ: Traces of Morandi (103/162 dbl diptych), 2015. Courtesy Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Catherine Wagner’s In Situ: Traces of Morandi featured more than two dozen photographs made in Giorgio Morandi’s Bologna studio in 2015 and 2016, where Wagner was in residence. An homage to Morandi seems a daunting project, especially for a photographer like Wagner, whose work over the past decade has pictured instruments of science and technology in highly detailed, sharply focused photographs. Her Morandi photographs, though, take a different tack. The outlines of bottles and bowls are blurred and luminescent against monochromatic grounds inspired by Morandi’s muted palette (numeric titles refer to the colored gels Wagner used when lighting the scenes). Photography risks demystifying its subject through specificity, while Morandi’s great gift was for evoking both the general and particular at once. Not just a cigar box, but Cigar Boxes. Other photographic treatments of Morandi have focused on the particular, from the diaphanous light in Luigi Ghirri’s pictures of Morandi’s studio (1989-90) to the rich colors of Joel Meyerowitz’s more recent series Morandi’s Objects (2015). Wagner’s photographs instead summon the ineffable qualities of Morandi’s paintings rather than focusing on the objects themselves.

Catherine Wagner, Grizzana Diptych #600, 2016. Courtesy Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Before seeing the other series in this show, the Shadows (2015-16) pictures were nearly inscrutable; the objects might have been thrown out of focus in-camera or photographed through frosted glass, for all their radiance. The Grizzana Studio series (2016) unmasks this illusion. Here, the shadows fall on a textured wall, marking them clearly as shadows. In the Wrapped Objects series (2015), Morandi’s bottles are wrapped in tinfoil (a nod to Wagner’s earlier work abstracting the complicated shapes of scientific instruments by cloaking them in foil).

Space, in the Shadows series, is deeply ambiguous. In the dove grey or plum-colored light, the air itself steps forward, taking on the physical quality of a James Turrell Ganzfeld installation (designed to eliminate the viewer’s depth perception). A fitting tribute to Morandi’s paintings, in which the most common objects become otherworldly, Wagner makes vision itself extraordinary.