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Her enigmatic science

Catherine Wagner's 'Cross Sections' photographs capture the mystery and abstract beauty of research, with its specimens, tools and labs that are also the source of compelling questions.

March 09, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | 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).

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