Nielsen Photograms Focus on Lost Dark Room Magic

by JT Peters

September 11, 2015

Photos: (above) Liz Nielsen’s Bush Moons; (below) Penguin Plant.

On display at the Southern Comfort Gallery off of Providence Road now through Oct. 31 (with an artist talk Saturday, Sept. 12 at 10:30 a.m.), Liz Nielsen’s latest collection of works, Night Garden, is a fine arts experience that might change the way you think about photography.

We often think of artistic photography as a practice involving brooding, black and white compositions of Roman architecture of Paris street scenes. At other times wide-framed postcard landscapes often highlighting sunsets, panoramic canyons, proud mountains or crashing waves. It’s not often that we consider the chemical process that bring these pictures into being — in fact that chemical process, developing film in a darkroom, is all but obsolete with the advent of digital processes whose depth and span are growing ever wider and deeper. Despite the ease of waving a cursor across a digital rendering of moments captured via DSLR, the darkroom injects humanity into the photographer’s art — an element vital in creating the unspoken feeling of emotional and textural depth in artwork. It’s those skills — manipulating positives and negatives, light-sensitive papers, stop baths, fixers and clearing agents — that imbue conventional photography with that satisfying sense of groundedness.

It’s in this context that the Brooklyn artist Nielsen works, with one small exception, she doesn’t start with a camera. The art-making for her BEGINS in the darkroom. Nielsen’s work consists of photograms — abstract artworks created using photographic techniques such as colored gels, handmade negatives, and light-sensitive papers — the results are sprightly, whimsical practices in additive color, white space and playful representation.

Nielsen’s work seems right at home on the sleek contemporary white walls of SOCO gallery. Entering the small space through the cozy collection of contemporary photography anthologies, artist books, and art-related nonfiction that makes up the gallery’s charming book store lessens the slight tension created by the ultra-modern setting. Nielsen’s representational elements take over from afar with blown up, large-format prints framed in white and grouped in a straight continuous line. Nielsen’s photogram plant-forms work together to build a garden of geometry and contrast. Looking at Nielsen’s compositions up close, it’s easy to lose track of time.

The adhesion process that Nielsen uses to stack gels atop one another to create each photogram leaves tiny crackles and textural imperfections on the edges of the forms. There are slight discolorations in the bodies of each of these polygons from irregular development, or the burn of dark room chemicals. It’s these imperfections that drive her work closer toward that of the color field painters of early European modernism and abstract expressionism. Especially up close, works like Forest Tree have character to spare in the moments where gels interlock and overlap, and where negatives invert magenta to cyan. Yet they maintain an almost illustrative texture and grace. A grouping of six smaller pieces, Blush Moons (at home in the back corner of the gallery space), really embody the spirit of the process. Irregular circular negatives are stacked one on top of the other creating a pale white circle in the middle of the square frame. The rough edges and bleeding colors turn what should be a very minimal design into something simple, yes, but visually and aesthetically dynamic.

The larger photogram forms, like the star of the show, Penguin Plant, take the basic principles emphasized in the smaller pieces and extrapolate them in wild and illustrative ways. Penguin Plant and many of Nielsen’s larger compositions have a rhythmic organization to them — as if they could be stills from a Sesame Street montage. This almost musical characteristic paired with the visual depth generated by the art-making process makes each of Nielsen’s works an experience.

Nielsen’s photograms are a refreshing take on photography and print making — an angle not often explored or appreciated for its intrinsic advantages over digital processes. In the same way, SOCO gallery is a refreshing oasis of modernism within the Charlotte art community. Together they have put together easily one of the most aesthetically compelling exhibitions this year.

Originally published at