Comments/Context: The process of artistic problem solving comes in as many shapes and sizes as there are artists, but for many, a fascination or obsession with a particular subject is the place where the roots can often take hold. For some, a model or muse provides the driving inspiration, while for others, a unique landscape or geography can be the setting for intense observation. In Sheila Pinkel’s case, starting in the mid-1970s, her attentions narrowed in on a modest and wholly unlikely object – a square glass dish taken from a Japanese restaurant – but her preoccupation with its mysteries blossomed into a series of investigations that used the humble cube to iteratively explore the undefined edges of image making technology.
Pinkel’s first discovery about her glass cube was that it was extremely uncooperative as a still life subject – she could never get exposures of the cube to behave in the same way. Photogram sessions in the darkroom would produce an unending stream of strange distortions and optical oddities. As the three dimensional form was flattened into two dimensions, the light would bend and fall in unexpected ways as it passed through the glass, casting elongated shadows or twisting the squared corners into inexplicable angles. Like a wild animal, her mundane glass cube refused to be tamed, thrashing around and fighting her every step of the way.
Pinkel’s approach to this stubbornness was to attempt to overwhelm the cube with methodical, patient iteration – she just kept making exposures, piling up the ethereal geometric outcomes as if she was trying to tire the anthropomorphized cube out. The results from this ongoing process were then organized into two large scale works that fill two full walls of this show. The largest work groups the photograms into patterns of similar or sequential compositions and then arranges them into a linear rhythm that plays out in plastic sleeves affixed to the wall. The effect is something akin to the stuttering jumps and blasts of a percussive musical score, with the cube bouncing and jumping as it moves around, its edges morphing with each frame. A second work constrains another group of photograms into a more rigid framed typology, the cube wandering and rotating in a step-wise function as it struggles to resist Pinkel’s control.
These initial experiments with the cube were just the beginning. Pinkel made cyanotypes of the cube, where the form appears to melt and pour away. She took her photograms of the cube and photocopied them using black and white and color Xerox technology, smearing the pages across the scanning bed, misaligning the various color layers, and letting her hands show through. She projected the cube image onto the bed of the Xerox machine, creating psychedelic distortions and inversions of color. And she even tried the x-ray technology of xeroradiography, making light blue images of the cubes with more surface texture and three dimensional depth. With each successive project, we can see Pinkel testing the cube in new ways, trying to use the object to push into new aesthetic realms.
This process of recursion and reuse continued in a 1977 short film called Intuition, where Pinkel took a photogram of the cube, and using the computing system at the USC School of Engineering Image Processing Laboratory, performed an evolving sequence of color transitions on the underlying image. With an eerie soundtrack of plonking distorted water drops, the image wanders through continuous gradient changes and step wise positive and negative color spectra. At moments, the cube looks like a TV set or a Rothko abstraction, only to dissolve back into an endless reverberating oscillation of colors. That the original glass dish could be the basis for this cutting-edge film (it was the first digital film made in the lab) is mind-bending, as Pinkel has put the form through so many transformations that it is hardly recognizable.
The persistent intelligence in this ongoing project is what makes it innovative and durably original. Pinkel has systematically deconstructed the glass cube, and used it as the basis for a thoughtful series of technologically-based artistic experiments. In each case, whether in the darkness of the darkroom or looking down at the scanner bed of a Xerox machine or feeding data into a first generation digital imaging system, she was making a calculated leap of faith, allowing chance and the rudiments of the various technologies to influence the trajectory of the artistic outcomes. And even when she didn’t emerge with something ground-breaking, she kept pursuing the cube, long after anyone thought she should keep going. To me, that says her mind was still actively processing the problems of the cube, and seeing others emerge just as the first and second and third were knocked down. She kept digging even when she could stand in the hole, and the sum total of that exhaustive effort shows us something compelling about the way an ordered artistic mind engages with a tantalizing and elusive subject.