As San Francisco artist Eric William Carroll describes it, back in 2010 he found himself tripping down one of those Wikipedia holes lurking on the other side of an innocent Google query. The viewer may feel similarly lost in “G.U.T. Feeling” at Highlight Gallery, an exhibition whose title image presents Albert Einstein as a proverbial pinhead. Your mother was right when she told you that nothing good ever came easy, and the same holds true for this first chapter in a body of work which takes the Grand Unified Theory (G.U.T.) as its starting point. A kind of unattainable ideal, various G.U.T.s have been developed by establishment and fringe physicists alike, each striving to explain the fundamental forces of the universe in a single elegant solution. Fringe science is either valid science departing from the mainstream or a bunch of hogwash, depending on whom you ask. Struck by the absurdity, grandstanding and purely visual poetry of theories created by these outsiders, Carroll responded with photography, his medium of choice. Embedded in the tube of a telescope converted into a microscope, a low-tech video of the Big Bang announces his intentions.
Greeting visitors with a wink, the artist places a washed out image of a nutshell at the door, chiding us for thinking any summing up could be so easy. Laid out on three walls, groups of framed works echo the shape of the Einstein field equations in such a way that one wall becomes mathematically equivalent to the other. Found imagery comprises thirty percent of the show, the rest of which Carroll produced in his studio. Works are titled simply after their subjects or categorized as indices. “I was born in 1980,” he says during a walk-through, “Appropriation is okay at this point.” “Index 29” is a call and response of found and created images. A grid of twenty pictures matches the plate from the Voyager spaceship with a spiraling galaxy, a tomato and the artist’s eyeball. Carroll’s delight in form is evident.
His “photo ecology” leads to pairings alive with banality and a sense of discovery. In “Index 49”, an x-ray from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is positioned beneath a close-up of cracked earth and what might be a satellite view of streets illuminated at night or just a bundle of wires on the artist’s desk. Carroll conflates skin and fissures, focusing on complexity masked by simplicity. A smooth wash of mud hides the fractured dirt to come. Economist Albert Hirschman argues that creativity occurs after a person undertakes – and underestimates – a project with hidden challenges. In the Hiding Hand Principle, he cites instances where unexpected challenges lead to a more creative solution than was originally intended. The black grid on two of the gallery’s walls holds a promise of order for which the artist never aims. A fluorescent protea bloom rhymes with a melting popsicle and a Polaroid of a sunset rests on top of an image of space. Clarity rears its head only to dart off behind one’s back.
“G.U.T. Feeling” isn’t about answers. Carroll inserts human-scaled things into a field concerned with what is too big or too small to see. He identifies the limits of visual representation, turning an atom into a pixilated image, breaking down that which cannot be broken down. He makes his own logic, like the fringe physicists who draw a conceptual diagram of the universe and name it truth. Clocks scattered on the ground are shown with a halved onion and a sundial on a cloudy day, a concise index of inutility. The onion tells us that the artist is in on the joke that escapes some DIY scientists. And this humor is key. Without it the show might lapse into pretension.
One of the best works, found on the wall dedicated to images of failure, is also the most surreal. A camera lens gleams from a piece of foamcore propped up on a wall. Carroll tried to make his own camera but it came apart so he photographed the aborted project, memorializing it, rendering it monumental. Grand Unified Theories aside, this show glories in trivialities. Carroll knows that pluots and doorknobs mean more, practically, than the theory of relativity. He understands the epic potential of the ordinary thing and laughs at the intrusion of reality into grand plans.
He sees the cinema of a popsicle melting on the sidewalk. How did he find it?
“I was in Brooklyn. I was waiting for a pizza.”
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Contributed by Ariel Rosen