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This Corrosion by Jonathan Marx
Nashville Scene, July 10 - 16, 2003

San Francisco artist Jim Haynes uses rust, chemicals and sound with his photographic works to explore the nature of change and decay.

Decay is a fact of existence, a fundamental truth borne out by the simple understanding that all living things must die. Inhabiting the post-industrial age, we understand decay in a whole other way as well. We see life cycles not just in plants and animals and humans and insects; we witness them in the things wrought by humankind: machinery, buildings, even entire cities. No matter how much cultures and technologies might advance, they are always subject to elemental forces, whether a slow trickle of water, a shift in the earth's fault lines or the indiscriminate, immediate destruction of a tornado.

This idea is somewhere at the core of Jim Haynes' work, though the artist might be hesitant to pose it in precisely those terms. Instead, he uses a combination of rust and chemicals in his photographic installations to enact change and decay on his own work: to evince its unpredictability, its potential for a rough kind of beauty, its inevitability.

The San Francisco-based artist, who grew up in Nashville, returns to his hometown this week to install "Magnetic North," a series of three large images, each one a rectangular grid composed of smaller, individual photographs to which he has applied a combination of rust, cupric sulfate and aluminum chloride. The mixture reacts with the photographs to start a corrosive process in which both the chemicals and the images themselves slowly transform. The result not even Haynes himself can fully predict, and therein lies much of the piece's power: Though "Magnetic North" may represent a carefully thought-out series of artistic choices, those choices can't be entirely determined by the artist.

Of the three pieces in "Magnetic North," the third is the only one that contains a distinct image. Here, Haynes took 25 photos of an unidentified architectural structure, each one capturing a square of detail so that when they're all laid out into a giant ordered grid, we can make out the overall form. Or, at least we'd be able to see it clearly were it not for the chemicals and rust that Haynes has applied to the photographs. The corrosion covers the shape of the edifice, making it possible to view the work as a statement about the ephemerality of manmade things.

It's much harder to determine what's depicted in the panels that make up "Magnetic North 1" and "Magnetic North 2," as the photographs are arranged in such a way that no continuous image emerges throughout. Instead, we see lines (electric power lines?) carried across part of the composition, or much vaguer, shadowy shapes, or shades of gray suffused with light and dark. Worked into most of these individual panels are patterns created by the rust and chemicals. The shapes are striking and distinct: In some cases, Haynes has created splashy, overlapping circles that look like the stains left behind by a coffee cup or a can of soda. Elsewhere, the patterns take the form of smaller grids and sequences that play off the larger structure of the whole installation. And then in some places, the chemicals have formed splotches that look like the kind of deterioration that might happen over time if a piece of metal were allowed to rust.

Once the chemically treated photographs are exposed to light, the images begin a slow transformation. When he first exhibited "Magnetic North" at Works/San Jose earlier this year, Haynes explains, the copper in the cupric sulfate resulted in vibrant, electrifying green hues. In the course of a month, as the photographs got a small amount of sunlight, the greens gradually turned into "bruised reds and purples, with the rust colorations maintaining their prominent stains."

In the course of working on "Magnetic North," Haynes has been able to determine what will happen to the pieces--but only up to a point. "I'm able to anticipate a general spectrum of change beginning with the most intense coloration, [which then] mutes toward purples and reds and comes to some sort of conclusion with a distressed gray. Within this general spectrum, I've encountered any number of possibilities that I had no control over. Sometimes, the intrinsic image fades entirely within the chemical residues; other times, it emerges as a ghostly afterimage. What I love about the process is what a lot of collectors fear: the fact that I have given permission for my work to change in such a way that it's beyond my control. Even if the terminal phase of the process results in an image that totally sucks, I'm really excited by the fact that the piece decided to have those results and not me."

The idea, however, is not simply to create something that will change, but to make something
aesthetically striking and significant while also letting the work go where it will. "I learn from the process and try to hone my skills," Haynes says, "so the photographs will always hold a visual impact, no matter where they are in the process."

It's easy enough to read "Magnetic North" as a piece about the human desire for control. But Haynes points out that the changing nature of the work means that the viewer's response is also subject--is invited--to change as well. Yet the work mutates so slowly that we're unable to witness the transformation, and this in turn serves as a reminder that we live our lives in the midst of quiet, unnoticeable flux. "How much do you notice your own face changing when you wake up in the morning and first look at the mirror?" Haynes asks. "It's the same face as the day before and the day before that, in which not much has changed. However, if you were to then compare your current face with a photograph of yourself 10 years ago, you'd notice considerable differences."

Haynes captures this slow, subtle transformation in "Magnetic North" by means of a sound element. Indeed, sound is essential to his work as an artist. "Okno #1," his 1999 show at the Fugitive Art Center, incorporated shortwave broadcasts played through a network of speakers arranged throughout the gallery. The sounds in "Magnetic North" also include shortwave noise, but rather than functioning as an aural collage as they did in this older work, they include feedback loops and field recordings as well, which reflect Haynes' interest in drones--something he has explored in the duo Coelacanth with fellow Bay Area musician Loren Chasse. But, he explains, "My solo recordings tend toward a greater sense of order, repetition and structure." So while giving expression to the imperceptibility of change, the sound composition in "Magnetic North" also suggests that patterns, both self-imposed and natural, are an innate part of our experience. One of the questions that Haynes' work poses is whether we're able to recognize those patterns, and on what scale--whether we're creating them, coercing them, reacting to them or giving ourselves over to them.

As with "Okno #1," the speakers and the wires that connect them are a visual element in the overall installation, in this case forming "a network of calligraphic lines counterpointing the rigidity of the photographic grid." Here too the artist has thought of still another way to manifest the opposing forces in his work.

But are these forces opposing? Certainly, history can be viewed as nothing but a record of all the ways that humankind has attempted to impose its will on the world, on nature. "Magnetic North" attempts to show us that all those attempts--"the residues of humanity," as Haynes puts it--are ultimately subject to and subsumed by something much, much greater: the very forces of planetary existence, which hold sway over us even as they too are subject to change. As Haynes notes, "The true magnetic north in the Arctic is constantly altering its position ever so slightly."

This installation is the second in Zeitgeist Gallery's "Art on the Edge" series, which has converted the third floor of the 12th & Demonbreun Building into an exhibit space. Inspired by similar projects in New York during the 1970s and '80s and in London more recently, Zeitgeist is inviting artists to use this building in the redeveloping Gulch area as a place to showcase conceptual or experimental work. It should lend a perfect and subtle irony to "Magnetic North": These renovated surroundings, which represent the rebirth of a decaying industrial area, may end up both reaffirming and attempting to deny the truths Haynes is asking us to grapple with.

Click here for the complete interview.