Her enigmatic science

Special to The Times

"Alzheimer's, breast cancer, HIV, bipolar disorder, alcoholism...."

Catherine Wagner ticks off a list of diseases and maladies as she points to one photograph after another in her collage "-86 Degree Freezers (12 Areas of Concern and Crisis)." The black-and-white enlargements show neatly stacked and labeled vials, petri dishes and cartons -- contained in laboratories around the country that are working on mapping DNA in the Human Genome Project. Inside the vials are tissue samples that represent your worst medical nightmares.

"The Human Genome Project will take these diseases apart," says Wagner. And then what? Who will be in charge of the information? And what will they do with it?

These are the kinds of the questions she hopes you'll ask as you look at her crisp, science-meets-art photographs. Besides the freezer shots, there are other pictures of lab paraphernalia and experiments unfolding, as well as her most recent work: elegantly abstract images created via medical imaging technology, extreme close-ups and slices of flora, fauna, cells and other biological material.

Critic Glen Helfand praises the artist for her "incredible eye and her incredible attention to beauty. There's a dazzle in her presentation," he says. But despite the beauty and order of what's displayed in "Catherine Wagner: Cross Sections," curated by Helfand and now at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, her images also create a sense of mystery and even dissonance.

"That's part of the strategy," says Wagner. "Beauty brings people into the work and then they have to wrestle with what it's about."

Signs of the times

Wagner, 50, has made a two-decade photographic career of the close examination of various human environments and endeavors.

"My work has always been about contemporary models that reflect the times in which we live," she says. "I've always looked at different sites of knowledge."

Headquartered in her native Bay Area -- she lives in San Francisco and teaches art at Mills College in Oakland -- Wagner has photographed in classrooms across America; at Disneyland; inside homes and on construction projects. The resulting images have been published in books, exhibited and acquired by numerous museums and institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

She always works in black and white. "It allows me to look at basic structure," she says. "The color doesn't get in the way. I can funnel and get at the essence of what the work is about."

Human figures are also missing from Wagner's photographs, but human behavior and creations underlie every shot: "I didn't want the specificity of the person to be what the work is about. I want it to be about the clues we leave behind."

She sees her current focus on science-related subjects as an outgrowth of all her investigations, another source of compelling images that raise questions and engage ideas.

Guiding a visitor through the "Cross Sections" show, Wagner speaks with the objectivity and clarity of someone used to lecturing to students.

She stops at images from her "American Classroom" project. "I ended the book with a series of science experiments," she says, pointing to a photograph that shows seeds beginning to germinate in plastic cups, and then to a picture of some 20 spotted frogs, jammed together and floating in clear liquid in a laboratory container.

"They're about to be dissected," she says, "I see a kind of beauty and horror and the conflict between the two."

Five years ago, Wagner's interest in science got a boost from a fellowship awarded her by the San Jose Museum of Art. The terms of the grant required her to incorporate some aspect of technology into her artwork.

"I thought, what happens if I co-opt the same tools that the scientists are using?" she says.

So on visits to labs at Stanford University and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel (another funder of her work), Wagner studied medical imaging technologies. With the aid of technicians at both institutions, she used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to create cross-sectional images of various organisms, and scanning electron microscopy, or SEM, to enlarge microscopic matter several thousand times.

Sometimes Wagner supervised the picture-taking. The show contains cutaway views of pomegranates, for example, and spring onions and pumpkins. The fruits and veggies were put into the MRI chamber and the cross sections were captured by the techs. Wagner then composed the final digital images in her computer, in many cases, arranging them in serial repetition.

She also appropriated images. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute captured a split-second of cell division -- mitosis, when one cell pulls apart into two. Wagner cleaned up extraneous "noise" around the image and put it on a black background to make "Dividing Cells" (1999).

Part of the appeal of the pictures is the mystery of the subject -- what is it, anyway? The wall labels don't give away many of the answers, although Wagner willingly reveals the truth when asked. She describes the new works as a "fictitious journey through the body which is not a body." In fact, a cross-section of green beans looks like twisty chromosomes; two lumpish lobes labeled "Left Brain, Right Brain" are actually fossilized organs from a fish; what looks like antlers is in reality a sea squirt, a microscopic marine invertebrate.

Cornelia Butler, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is one of three essayists in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition. She cites the "sense of indulgent visual pleasure in how these pictures are arranged. The frogs are photographed from above, creating a flattened patterning of spotted skin, which formally anticipates the abstraction ... of works like the monumental 'Pomegranate Wall.' "

And "Pomegranate Wall" is monumental. It's 8 feet high and 40 feet wide, an expanse of slightly curved photographic panels dramatically lighted from behind and displayed in a darkened room.

"I started wanting to make a piece about fruits in the Bible, and then I got stuck on the pomegranate," Wagner says. She also likes the fact that people think they look like cells. And that the pomegranate has many meanings in legend and lore. In various cultures it symbolizes fertility, rebirth, or the church. In Greek mythology, it was eating a few seeds of the pomegranate that put Persephone in Hades for half the year.

Eventually, the idea evolved into making a piece that would actively confront the viewer and fill his or her visual space. "I decided I wanted to make this monumental wall that talks about looking at life from the inside out."

"Also, this is definitely a kind of wondrous thing," Helfand says. "It has a kind of celestial quality."

That's the reaction Wagner wants from those who see her work. After all, she says, "The key is really their own sense of wonder and discovery."


'Catherine Wagner: Cross Sections'

When: Daily (except Friday), 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena.

Ends: May 25

Price: $6, adults; $4, seniors (62 and older) and students with ID

Contact: (626) 568-3665

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