Photography has, from its earliest decades, proved a useful ally to naturalists as a method for documenting specimens. In the case of photograms, which created records of whatever was placed on the photo-sensitive surface, nature could draw itself.
However seemingly straightforward the process, there is a lyricism to those early studies that is ancestor to the often rapturous work of Christine Nguyen.
Like 19th century botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, the Long Beach-based Nguyen uses the cyanotype (blueprint) process. Its luscious tones and rich translucencies suit her subjects well — not just plants of the ocean but also of the land, and more broadly, the fluid expanse of the cosmos.
In two large cyanotypes on photographic paper at the gallery Baik, she invokes the extraordinary flickering light of the aquatic underworld. Kelp and seaweed float in grayish silhouette against the cyan sea. In two even larger (88 by 61 inches) cyanotypes on watercolor paper, images of sunflowers and leaves flicker white as moonlight against what now reads as a sapphire night sky.
Nguyen has been growing salt crystals on the surfaces of her works on both paper and canvas for years, and they appear here as delicate, shimmering crusts on a group of small cyanotypes on muslin. They also define a full-body silhouette in the canvas centerpiece of "The Cosmic Long Return," which is flanked, shrine-like, by wall-hanging branches, thistles and pods. Elements of the installation are beautiful, but the whole feels weighed down by the excessively literal.
More concentrated profundity can be found in a series of nine little "meteorites," cratered clay forms glazed glossy-black like obsidian, each one nesting a perfect specimen, a tiny pine cone or sea urchin shell. Micro and macro worlds converge in each exquisite hand-sized poem.
Baik Art, 2600 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 842-3892, through April 2. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.baikart.com