‘Mariah Robertson: Permanent Puberty’ at American Contemporary

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Installation view. (Courtesy American Contemporary)

Many of today’s most exciting young photographers favor icy digital precision, but Brooklyn–based Mariah Robertson is up to some thoroughly pleasurable things at the extreme opposite end of that spectrum in her third show at American Contemporary. Using photographic chemicals with idiosyncratic abandon, sans camera, she makes huge, color-splattered prints that blur the line between abstract painting and abstract photography. She slices and tears these scrappy abstractions, and the resulting pieces suggest supernaturally lucid watercolors, stubbornly refusing to dry, with marks still streaking down the photo paper.

Ms. Robertson is also showing photograms in which manic geometric shapes and explosions of color-—acid magentas, neon blues, sickly yellows—burst from shadows. She makes them by placing gels and objects on paper in darkrooms, as early modernists did almost 100 years ago. Like games of speed chess, the results are sometimes too sketchy and awkward, but when they work out, they dazzle: ingenious, provisional structures assembled with quicksilver immediacy. (The same goes for her abstractions.) A few simple geometric drawings show teeth, headless humanoid figures and words (“men,” “feelings,” “mum”), lending a darkly comic, personal undertone to the affair.

Abstractions and photograms both end up haphazardly ensconced in too-large or too-small frames, as if they are fragments of a larger, now-lost exotic parchment or the quarantined remains of some dangerous alchemical process. In a work on view in the Museum of Modern Art’s current show of recent photography acquisitions, a long abstract photo by Ms. Robertson climbs from the walls to ceiling like a canopy. At American Contemporary, two large frames stacked one atop the other in the center of one room each harbor a wild abstraction, reaching from floor to ceiling to create a makeshift wall. Together they signal a nascent, renegade architectural practice, another nimble transgression of the borders that demarcate disciplines. What would she do with a commission for a whole room or a building? (Through Dec. 20)