When first encountering Josh Brand’s modestly scaled photographs, it’s easy to get caught up in questions about facture: One wonders just how their arresting depths and subtleties of hue and contrast are achieved. For, along with contemporaries like Liz Deschenes, Markus Amm, Eileen Quinlan, and Wolfgang Tillmans, Brand employs a repertoire of sleight-of-hand analog procedures and effects. He embraces darkroom techniques and color printing processes now shadowed by advances in digital photography—recalling a shift in the 1990s that saw artists return to 16mm film for its physical properties and formal differences from high definition video. And yet he adopts these arcane techniques in order to reinvent them, to explore the seemingly counterintuitive pairing of abstraction and photographic means.
After studying film and photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, Brand moved to New York in 2003, where he found employment as a commercial printer in different custom labs (one of which, incidentally, went out of business this past year). Quietly appropriating his workplace as an after-hours studio for extemporaneous darkroom “sessions,” Brand began to experiment with simple gestures and an open-ended mode of composition—indebted to his interest in musical collaboration—to develop a body of work that cuts against the serial and documentary grain of conventional photography.
Many of Brand’s unique images—nearly all untitled—are made quickly and without a camera by simply blocking out parts of a photosensitive surface underneath brief exposures of light. Often implementing items near at hand—a box, a piece of cardboard or paper—Brand renders planes and strata according to the relation of the intermediary thing to the light source, holding materials close to the surface to create a precipitous hard edge or suspending an object to create a hovering gradation of shadow and perceived depth. Evincing an aesthetic of performative immediacy and tabletop dexterity, this trajectory of Brand’s output is multifarious, allusive, and playful: A modernist grid is conjured by a red-on-white pattern, yet any rigidity is canceled by a semi-transparent glow; a contour of light ripples through perforated paper in blind mimicry of an aleatoric Hans Arp collage; a simple two-step exposure outlines a pastel purple and blue pattern of the kind of architectonic shape one might find in a Josef Albers color test; four slash marks cleave the monochromatic black of an exposed sheet of photo paper in homage to Lucio Fontana, avowing the gestural mark making at the foundation of Brand’s practice; and a dumb pear shape wryly invokes figure and ground with economy and ease.
Complicating the immediacy of his gestural maneuvers, however, another strain of Brand’s work leans toward a kind of elaborate shadow play, wherein layered patinas and competing geometries evoke a contingent return to the surface over time. In these works, spatial positions are far less stable and perceptual ambiguities multiply. For example, faint shades of green, pink, and red appear to have accrued in one image as occasional scratches or spots, blotting the background, while an incomplete rhomboid tilts away from the viewer. Offset by intersecting lines that triangulate to pull the composition vertiginously upward, afterimage-like impressions contrast with crisp delineation.
Such dissonance between physical fact and psychic effect is closely related to Brand’s process, which here includes leaving out light-sensitive paper around his apartment, with different segments exposed to a mix of natural and artificial light. The surfaces pick up receding planes, tiers, and mantles of light before ever having entered the darkroom. Not unlike canvases being primed or distressed, these grounds are prepped via daily routine and serendipity. Further entanglements with time-lapse and sequence arise in the manifold steps that follow. Scratched and incised directly on the surface of photo paper, Brand’s glyph-like line drawings can readily alternate between positive and negative according to the given composition. Varied and softened by a contact print process that flips an initial cut—exposing the laceration to light and imprinting its impression on a new sheet of paper below—scumbled nuances of trace and shadow evolve via this generational approach to printing. Whether employed in the darkroom or without, Brand joins the technique of the photogram with his knowledge of advanced color printing ratios to blur and obfuscate the boundary between objective imprint and abstract shape.
A type of silhouette-picture, the photogram is simply defined as a photographic print made from placing an object directly onto sensitized paper and exposing the configuration to light. Any part of the intermediate thing not in direct contact with the paper below requires only the smallest amount of raking light to cast a shadow. This rudimentary procedure—a nineteenth-century device recuperated within an art context by Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy—becomes nearly animate in Brand’s hands, as the touch and transfer of numerous prints contributes to the oscillating, increasingly agitated effect of recent works. For instance, Untitled (Three), 2008, conveys how the artist has shifted toward filmic possibilities in opening up the work to sequential presentation. The bleached out impression of a Twombly-esque surface, inscribed with cut marks and arced fragments, is registered in a light blue tint and then inverted by flipping the image and making a contact print with contrasting shades and color. Ultimately implying a sequence of motion like that of a flicker film, the images are separated by the blind spot of a black print to form a triptych, thus inserting the structural pause of an overexposed mistake or “distraction” from the printing process—recalling the intervals between film frames and offering an abstract sequence that amplifies the direct animation techniques of Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and Harry Smith.
By extending his work beyond the singular frame, Brand enters further into the flow of immediate gesture and superimposition, and his discrete images appear set in motion. In another untitled image, the soft purple gradations projected by the vertical shadows of a table lamp induce the off-center rotational effect of a gyre—à la Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, 1926—only to be opposed by a flat black swath across the top, returning the image to a painterly target. Part of a series of pictures of absent objects, the work renders a readymade element displaced and unsettled. Green, Yellow, White, 2008, displays double halos orbiting through a green haze, suggesting the flare of an otherworldly circuit or astral event while deferring all attempts to locate the actual referent of the image. Originating from a double exposure taken from adjacent angles and processed as a conventional print, the shape turns out to come from the rim of a discarded bass drum that caught Brand’s eye while moving apartments. Hung from a nail on the wall for a couple of weeks, it was eventually recast in the record of an ethereal happening.
But Brand’s methods are not limited to a tidy conceptual credo that would rely solely on photograms. As with James Welling’s versatile procedures—including the well-known Degrades (1986-2006) but also his abstract pictures derived from other pictures—Brand is averse to limiting his formal range and deliberately adopts varied techniques in order to keep options open. And so a zoomed-in snapshot of the same drum rim can be remade into imposing half crescents floating against a striated background, bathed in vitreous shades of rose and turquoise. By shifting an early modernist palette worthy of Moholy-Nagy away from any intimation of omniscient transparency, color and trace are here put in service of a more provisional abstraction. Similarly, a nine-foot stick found at the old rehearsal space for Hurray, his sometime band and project-based group with painters Richard Aldrich, Peter Mandradjieff, and Zak Prekop, is photographed and commemorated by Brand as a lambent yellow cylinder. Initially used to pop the tiles of a drop ceiling and reveal a skylight above, the stick quickly became a casual totem for the group, leaning against the wall of their studio for months. Never quite cohering into a depiction of the sculptural form, Brand's close-up negative of the pole is printed twice, turning the shadowy lines into an abstract icon. Extracted from the elongated and fragmented social time of playing music, the document morphs into an optical illusion of perfect rotation and spatial unity. As Man Ray once wrote of his “rayographs” in The Age of Light (1934), many of Brand’s images are signs extracted from the experiential, “seized in moments of visual detachment during periods of emotional contact.” As such, they share in Man Ray’s intimate and restive response to the evidentiary assuredness of photography: “[T]he ensuing violation of the medium employed is the most perfect assurance of the author’s convictions. A certain amount of contempt for the material employed to express an idea is indispensable . . . ” Contrary, however, to Man Ray’s attraction to photography as a kind of automatic writing or tremor of the subconscious, Brand deploys it to continually tack between immediacy and remove, index and abstraction, mark and code.
Indeed, Brand’s phenomenological engagement with photographic printing—his production of singular images through gesture and process—can be thought of as part of an inevitable counter to photographic explorations of appropriation, circulation, and image reproduction. Yet his pictures are not positioned against such postconceptual frameworks but alongside them. They furtively borrow from modernism’s “truth to materials” while continually playing off the operative tension between the material and the optical dimensions of the photographic artifact. Neither nostalgic for a rapidly fading look, nor unaware of the surprisingly reduced legibility and degraded optics that often accompany technological advance, Brand’s images of duration build off momentum and withdrawal, no exhaustion in sight.