JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 large scale color photographs, framed in light wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the office. All of the works are pigment prints, made in 2019. Each is sized 60×48 inches and is available in an edition of 3.
Comments/Context: The first time I wrote about Jessica Eaton’s work, almost a decade ago now, I made an embarrassing mistake. Somehow I got confused about the steps she was taking to construct her images, and made the erroneous assumption that she was using digital manipulation to generate at least some of the uncanny outcomes in her series Cubes for Albers and LeWitt (cfaal). I remember that after the review ran, I got an impassioned email from Eaton explaining how wrong I was about her working process. Not only did she patiently educate me about what I had misunderstood (and therefore mis-described, which I then corrected), she made it clear that my confusion was more than just a bunch of arcane details – those details and the larger working process they represent are in fact the fundamental core of her artistic worldview. At the time, she was more than a little annoyed that I had failed to understand and appreciate what was so critically important about what she was doing.
Appropriately chastened, I have since approached Eaton’s work with much more care, knowing from experience that full comprehension of her art requires a thoughtful investment of time and effort to unpack at least the technical basics of her process. While the digital revolution in photography and the ubiquity of smartphone cameras have given photographers the ability to be even more loose and improvisational, Eaton has stayed true to her own rigid approach, in a sense, reinventing and extending how analog photographic technology can be employed. Her work is systematic, scientific, and largely pre-planned, where ordered thinking and precise execution are controlled by the eye of a perfectionist.
The works on view in this show are a continuation of the cfaal series, albeit with a new set of compositional themes being explored. And while I’m sure there are dozens of small optimizations and learnings that have helped to make these recent works more mature and sophisticated, the central logic of her process is largely the same as when she started. Using geometric forms (blocks, cubes, and hollow boxes in nested sizes) painted in shades of grey, Eaton iteratively creates and photographs table top still life modules. Each layer of the arrangement is photographed multiple times using various combinations of RGB (red, green, and blue) filters and light intensities, the colors that appear in the final works additively built up. So to be clear, the multi-colored, telescoped and striped designs that we see in her final prints exist nowhere in real life – they have been painstakingly constructed step by step via hundreds of discrete analog exposures. If we look very closely at the new prints, we can see the textures of paint and the edges of actual boxes, as well as the slight mis-registration of the exposure layers in a few cases, giving us a few hints and glimpses of what took place in the studio.
Compositionally, Eaton’s new works have a different vantage point than the previous examples in the series. While she began with layers of three-dimensional cubes and flattened squares, she soon moved on to nested cubes with all three visible sides decorated with concentric striping. That idea has been reimagined here, with a single side now seen frontally squared off. While the external perimeter dimensions of the largest squares are all the same, the internal nesting changes from one iteration to the next – single layers are thinner, fatter, or precisely equal, and the size of the central aperture that lets us “see” through to the backdrop expands and retracts, the resulting diagonal lines of perspective becoming more or less prominent. The overall result is a set of compositions that pull us strongly inward, the layering of the squares denser and more intricate than ever before.
Eaton’s control of color has become increasingly nuanced in these new works. The colors feel deeper and richer than in her previous efforts, the tones more saturated but less overtly bold. She seems to have deliberately avoided obviously matching or opposing color wheel combinations, instead placing yellows with browns and greys, beiges with greens and oranges, and a spectrum of soft pastels together, essentially keeping us off balance. One composition (cfaal 2343) seems to echo the dated colors of a 1970s-era basement rec room (reminiscent of wood veneer, shag carpet, and Formica), while another (cfaal 2306) uses telescoping layers of vibrant orange to create a pulsating optical effect.
There is a mastery of medium exhibited in these recent works that makes Eaton unique in contemporary photography – nobody else is doing what she’s doing to unravel (and painstakingly re-code) the stubborn mysteries of photographic color, and her intensity and whip smart obsessiveness have further separated her from the crowd. Her recent Guggenheim fellowship signals that others are starting to pay better attention. We would be well advised to do so as well, as she is an artist whose understated firepower has led to a steady stream of high performance innovation.