By Leah Ollman
9:00 AM PDT, May 17, 2013
The strangeness and mystery of the Voynich Manuscript has inspired musicians and novelists. Not surprisingly, the work has also proved a springboard for visual artists, but the remarkable thing about the photographs by Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft now at Thomas Solomon is how they don't just feed off the manuscript's secrets and complications but build upon them to generate something odd, fantastic and mysterious in its own right.
The Voynich Manuscript, in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale, dates from the 15th or 16th century. At least the vellum does. Everything else about the 240-page volume is in dispute: its country of origin (though scholars narrow it down to Central Europe); the undecipherable language of its text (possibly a code?); the purpose -- Scientific? Artistic? Both? -- of its botanical, astronomical, astrological and biological illustrations.
Some claim the manuscript is a hoax. Some say it was written by aliens. Some attribute curative powers to the pages and have attempted to lick or consume them.
Ruperto, based in L.A., and Heltoft, from Copenhagen, have produced a series of photographs based on the manuscript's 100-plus ink and colored wash botanical illustrations, which detail unidentifiable plant species. Using computer imaging software, they construct three-dimensional visualizations of the individual plants, make a negative from each digital file and then silver gelatin prints, the traditional way, in the darkroom.
All eight 16-by-20-inch images on view are stunning, surprising, curious. Each plant specimen, isolated against a rich black ground, reads as a sculptural presence with palpable texture -- thistled, rubbery, glossy. One of them has two stems that dangle bell-like pods and a crown of tiny pineapples, this sweetly ornamental array rising from a thick, hairy rod of roots surging with raw sexuality.
Another crazy beauty mashes together a trio of whiskered lotus seed heads, a chandelier of sinuous stems barnacled with dark beads, and a drooping mass of vaguely animate ridged pods.
The pictures pay homage to Karl Blossfeldt's elegant taxonomic studies of the '20s, published as "Urformen der Kunst" (Art Forms in Nature), and also recall Joan Fontcuberta's witty and whimsical "Herbarium" photographs of the early '80s, documenting hybrid flora of the artist's own devising.
Whatever the motivations behind the original Voynich illustrations, Ruperto and Heltoft's pictures manifest a delicious paradox as photographic records of imaginary subjects, indexical traces of fictions. Their integration of analog and digital photo technologies further complicates the temporal weave upon which these images float: old yet new; hand-crafted but electronically generated; historically grounded and also ephemerally ageless. Steeped in contradiction, they supply crisp evidence of a gauzy, existential indeterminacy. They are the perfect relics of photography's 21st-century era of exploration.
Thomas Solomon Gallery, 427 Bernard St., (323) 275-1687, through June 8. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. www.thomassolomongallery.com
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