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Mariah Robertson's Chemical Reactions

October 17, 2014

How does an artist come to grips with the uncontrollable? Filmed over the course of four years, artist Mariah Roberston experiments with photographic chemistry in her Brooklyn darkroom, leading to a striking series of colorful cameraless abstractions. Confronted with a roll of paper that was accidentally exposed, Robertson begins to play with the ruined paper, saying “I always enjoy trying to make something out of the unwanted thing and go deeper into the disaster.” Robertson experiments with developer, fixer, and water at various concentrations and temperatures, creating vibrant images that appear to have optical or painterly effects but instead are the result of arrested chemical reactions.

Robertson faces another challenge when she discovers that metallic photo paper no longer comes in precut sheets but only on coiled rolls. Forced to adjust, she responds by tearing rolls of paper into free-form sheets with jagged edges. In contravention of standard exhibition practice, Robertson installs the fully exposed rolls of 100 feet or more as unframed sculptural ribbons, hanging them in looping swathes that respond to the surrounding architecture. Contemplating what it means to exhibit her one-of-a-kind artworks in such a vulnerable way, Robertson suggests that “all your attempts are gonna fail at controlling life, so you should let that go so you can actually see what’s happening.”

More information and credits

Featuring the artworks 33 (2014) and 222 (2012) in the artist’s darkroom; 11 (2012) installed in the exhibition XL: 19 New Acquisitions in Photography at The Museum of Modern Art; 113 (2012) at M+B; 9 (2011) installed at Museum 52 and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art; 88 (2010) installed in the exhibition Greater New York at MoMA PS1; as well as the installation process for the exhibition Hot Tropical Rain Jam (2011) at Museum 52; and the Halloween opening for the exhibition Permanent Puberty (2012) at American Contemporary. Featuring the songs Mavi Sepet (2008) by Hayvanlar Alemi, Divider (2011) and Air Hockey Saloon (2014) by Chris Zabriskie, and Jeremiah Iriemiah’s reggae cover of How Deep Is Your Love (1977) by the Bee Gees.


Art21 New York Close Up Created & Produced by: Wesley Miller & Nick Ravich. Producer & Editor: Rafael Salazar & Ava Wiland. Cinematography: Rafael Salazar. Sound: Ava Wiland. Additional Camera & Sound: Wesley Miller. Associate Producer: Ian Forster. Design & Graphics: CRUX Design & Open. Artwork: Mariah Robertson. Music: Hayvanlar Alemi, Jeremiah Iriemiah & Chris Zabriskie. Thanks: American Contemporary, Stardust Atkeson, Matthew Dipple, Don Edler, Roxana Marcoci, The Museum of Modern Art, Lisa Pomares, Kay Reese, Eva Respini, Arno Simar, Katerina Stathopoulou, Mark Williams & Lindsey Winkel. An ART21 Workshop Production. © ART21, Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Art21 “New York Close Up” is supported, in part, by The Lambent Foundation; the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; and by individual contributors.

Closed captionsAvailable in English, German, Romanian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian

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Mariah Robertson

Mariah Robertson was born in 1975 in Indianapolis, Indiana, grew up in Sacramento, California, and lives and works in New York. A photographer often working without a camera, Robertson creates images through ceaseless darkroom experimentation. Without knowing exactly what outcomes her hand-applied color chemicals will cause, she balances this lack of control with her mastery of the material. Her willingness to push the boundaries of photography allows her a freedom not often found within the field.