A Visual History of the Invisible: The Art of Peter Gronquist
Weather patterns, the branching networks of cyberspace, snow crystals, the changing qualities of light, the rules governing geopolitics, the shape of the wind. None of these things are readily visible to the naked eye, but artists and scientists have spent centuries attempting to give form to these and other invisible phenomena. Titian is thought to have illustrated one edition of Vesalius's treatise on anatomy in the 16th century; miniature painters wrote and illuminated major works on the moths of England in the 18th; in 1878, Eadweard Muybridge photographed a running horse, thereby fixing movement as light on paper. In the late 20th century, Marcel Duchamp turned art’s ability to trace the contours of the imperceptible into a creative dictum—artmaking is making the invisible, visible.
In our time, one West Coast artist, the Portland, Oregon-based shape-shifter Peter Gronquist, has become particularly attuned to the mysterious, the indiscernible and the visually elusive. After finding early success as an artist who investigated one of the world’s most readily visible phenomena—runaway global consumerism—Gronquist switched gears and aimed his keen visual intelligence at even more ubiquitous if veiled manifestations. His explanation for the shift was that he wanted to make things that made him feel, as opposed to those that made him think. Among those “things” was one especially crystalline object-cum-experience: A Visual History of the Invisible (2018). Encountering it in one of its various guises is akin to seeing colored musical notes when listening to Mahalia Jackson’s recording of Summertime.
Gronquist’s synesthesia-inducing idea was simple but required significant engineering. The artist used steel cable to hang a 50 x 50 square foot, 200-pound sheet of silver spandex over a gap set between two rocky outcroppings on the Columbia River Gorge. The wind—an element that despite its remarkable force often remains invisible to human sight—did the rest. If it sounds easy, it wasn’t. Gronquist successfully raised his enormous emergency blanket in the face of stiff breezes only on the third try. Previously, the cable he used broke, not once but twice, sending his reflective sheet tumbling into the river like a massive parachute. Not unlike strong mountain gusts, scale turns out to be another important force to be reckoned with.
As seen in the artist’s poetically titled video recording of the event, Gronquist’s XXXL sheet of silver spandex does far more than just hang idly in the manner of a static picture (Gustave Caillebotte’s 1892 painting Laundry Drying, Petite Gennevilliers comes to mind). Instead, it billows like a huge curtain, flutters like a giant flag, and swells like a ship’s sail according to the direction of various airstreams. The intensity of those airstreams, in turn, gives literal form, shape and sound to the fabric’s movements in a way that speaks to both the changing conditions of viewership—the differences between experiencing Gronquist’s video and Caillebotte’s painting, for instance, couldn´t be starker—as well as to the power of nature’s complex if hidden energies.
Leonardo’s quip about simplicity being the ultimate form of sophistication goes a long way in describing Gronquist’s work in its various iterations: it exists as a seven-minute video, an actual 50 x 50 foot sheet of silver spandex, and as a set of documentary photographs that the artist is determined not to sell (“I don’t sell photographs,” he told this writer). But besides serving as a significant milestone in the artist’s career, A Visual History of the Invisible also points backwards and forwards toward other artistic milestones that look past impressionism, and late 20th century developments like Earth Art, at what the uncompromising conceptualist Hans Haacke has called the “hypercomplex systems.” An exploration of a natural force in a specific landscape, Gronquist’s powerful artwork also alludes to more expansive concepts like weather, climate and atmosphere as a rapidly changing set of facts but also as a powerful symbolic representation of the same.
The unlikely referencing of the determinedly political Haacke might seem odd in assaying the work of a sensualist like Gronquist, but the German’s early sculptures channel a decidedly phenomenological drift that bear mentioning when considering the work of the American. Works like Condensation Cube (1964), a sealed Perspex box that creates condensation according to the light and temperature of its environment, and Blue Sail (1964-65), a square blue tarpaulin weighted in the corners and blown from below by a fan, don’t so much suggest antecedents for Gronquist’s rippling fabric (the Oregonian only recently became aware of Haacke’s early work) as establish an important alliance across six decades of art making. Like Gronquist’s versions of A Visual History of the Invisible, Haacke’s works from the late 1960s explore the interactions of physical and biological systems, while fundamentally departing from the notion of the work of art as a static object animated only by the interaction of the viewer.
Working in a manner that, to paraphrase Andrea Fraser, represents the extensive interplay between what is inside and outside the field of art, Gronquist’s action, video and objects—he has additionally generated a series of wind-inspired wall-mounted sculptures titled Wind Memory from fabric, resin and silver oxide—tap into an understanding of air and other natural forces as matter and medium. A microcosm of a series of meta-problems affecting the cultural, the scientific and even the political sphere, the Portland-based artist’s efforts also tap into debates around climate change and the new epistemologies being conceived currently to imagine humankind’s fundamental geologic transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.
Attuned not just to events inside in the studio, but to elements outside of it, Gronquist mobilizes a sensibility that is at once environmental and painterly. A 21st century plenairist in the manner of the Catalan Perejaume, the American artist—who began his career as a figurative painter and has become a purveyor of moodily expressive color field paintings that are often augmented by custom-programmed LEDs—has made of landscape, and especially of the light and air of the Pacific Northwest, a recurring subject that is explored through various media. That proliferating media, whether painting, sculpture, photography, installations, video or interventions into nature itself, has itself become a signature of Gronquist’s search for phenomena that remain, stubbornly, unseen. In the artist’s own words, his project has become a poetic history of the invisible, “a monument to the invisible element, to forces that shape the earth in the most undeniable way.”
The Ephemeral Risk:
Enigma and Corporeality in the Work of Peter Gronquist
Peter Gronquist parlays atmospheric refrains—wind, incandescence, water, stillness—into installations and objects of solemn grace and ethereal allure. His sensitivity to the natural world, and human interaction with it, transposes the exquisite melancholy of Casper David Friedrich onto the twenty-first century’s technological landscape, Yet he presents his ideas through the structural simplicity of 1960s aesthetics, in what could be considered a form of Romantic Minimalism. The result is an oeuvre of orchestral magnificence.
Gronquist’s sculptural palette includes radiant monoliths in the sumptuous colors of twilight—pinks, blues and oranges—set amongst the wild outdoors. They suggest cosmological gateways, or portals to other regions of the multiverse, and act as transitional instances across the fabric of space-time. Gronquist fuses his elemental intuition to environmental beauty, creating a rare contemplative frisson for the viewer. The essence of the work changes depending on whether one views it in its physical manifestation, or at a distance, in recorded film or photographic image. This difference in how one encounters the work lends it a mythic sensibility, in the vein of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, or Andy Goldsworthy’s evanescent motifs. It did—and may again exist. The image, the memory, the idea, the reality, are indistinguishable.
In One Day (2019) a glowing, rose menhir located in a wooded clearing, thrums with energy. With the acquiescence of day to night the technicolor battery of crackling photons is transmitted beyond the rectilinear structure and out into the darkness. The glimmering slab is hypnotic, its sharp edges incongruous to the forest’s twisting forms, yet its warm light recalls aspects of the woods—ignis fatuus, bioluminescent creatures, gaseous mists, and moonlight on the darkling firs. Gronquist venerates the firmament by distilling its brilliance into a singularity. The piece is otherwise experienced in its recorded time-lapse guise. Filmed over a twenty-four hour period, the block’s pinkish hue shimmers as the camera adjusts to the correct aperture for each photograph. It is a mechanical ghost, triggering the recollection of something that has vanished.
There is an unsettling note of inter-dimensional arrival, or departure, and of metaphysical change, in Gronquist’s art. It is particularly prescient in Light Totem (2019). Framed by brooding peaks, hovering above an inky, vitreous lake, a piercing sliver of frozen, violet lightning is the night’s waiting sentinel. It shouldn’t be there, but in league with its surroundings it emits a stark beauty, and quiet foreboding for unearthly visitors—the science-fictional imaginings of our limitless curiosity.
Gronquist’s empathy for the rhythm of the cosmos, the ebb and flow of meteorological conditions, is central to his practice. In the paradoxically titled A Visible History of the Invisible (2018) Gronquist takes a simple premise—the passage of the wind—and reveals its character in momentary visual poetry. An expanse of shivering, silver spandex, held aloft between rock formations, morphs continually—the rippling sail of a sixteenth century galleon ploughing forward; the torn descent of a doomed zeppelin; an aerial dogfight of shifting riptides; a memorial banner; even the domesticity of billowing laundry, writ-large.
The work’s mesmerizing elegance belies its associations with the breadth of human industry—from the grand, and towering, to the disastrous, sepulchral, or quotidian. A Visible History of the Invisible, is one gesture that embodies legions. The wind moving around it, invokes our own fleeting perceptions of our lifetimes. What we retain, that informs our selfhood, is only fragmentary—we remember only transitory instances of experience, circumstance or witness; inadequate pieces of larger discourses. Gronquist funnels the wind past us as pneumatic phantasm. It is a metaphorical agent for the cultural dark matter from which our conscious selves are formed.
Elsewhere, Gronquist intervenes upon the systems, logic and structures of physical science. Shatter (2017) comprises a twenty-five square foot panel of glass in the form of an infinity mirror. The color deepens inward, from white, to turquoise to pitch black, as it follows an ever-decreasing quadrilateral design that falls away toward the center. It recalls pristine oceanic gyres, or the abject terror of an abyss. However, the integrity of the concentric squares is compromised by a cratered web radiating out in splintered shards, caused by a blunt impact on the upper right segment of the plane. The glass has not given way, but it has fractured, so that the geometric grid has buckled. The torqued, corrupted lines create fascinating new architectures, like cracks repeating beneath the surface of thick, transparent ice. Angles are pulled from their ninety degree origins, and sharpened into arrows; the broken spiral orbs at the point of impact shudder outward. These effects ripple across the entire surface, unleashing chaos onto the properties of universal order.
This intention is increased exponentially, in Immortals 7, and Immortals 12, which are created by explosive violence, exceeding temperatures twice as hot as the surface of the planet Mercury. In each sculpture, a ceramic vase is partially submerged in a column of cold water. Molten aluminum is poured into the vessel, which ruptures it, allowing the water and the aluminum to collide. The vaporized water bubbles blast away the cooling aluminum in spectacular pyroclastic events that last barely two seconds. The result is an extraordinary ectoplasmic composition—an instant of chemical destruction, and rebirth captured within new forms of exotic matter.
The allure of Gronquist’s art lies in its alchemical combination of factors, that are at the heart of human endeavor. He blends our marvel at the incomprehensible pulse of creation; the mythical and ritualistic ideologies that we have formed in response to it; and the emotivity we feel for our place within it. In contemplation of these concerns the artist reaches for the outer edges of knowledge, where certainty, mathematics, and scholarship yield to fantasy, conjecture and fear. At such junctures, we tend to fall back on magic, until science can access sublime astronomical realties beyond human comprehension. It is there, at the crucibles of eternity, on the event horizon between terrestrial understanding and longing for the unknown, that Peter Gronquist’s work resides.
Darren Jones, 2020