Walead Beshty at the Hirshhorn—Abstract Art or Photography?

Beshty tries to put together a conversation

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The stacks of FedEx boxes and cubes of cracked glass scattered throughout the third floor of the Hirshhorn don't look like priceless works of contemporary sculpture, which is probably why museum visitors keep crossing the security tape and setting off the alarms.

Or maybe they do it just to get a closer look. The shatterproof glass cubes are mailed from exhibit to exhibit, accumulating cracks, dents, chips, and other abrasions that the artist, Walead Beshty, can't anticipate.

The box sculptures are featured in the new exhibit, "Directions: Legibility on Color Backgrounds," which focuses on Beshty's creations. Though, what place do the boxes have next to his multicolor photograms and his black and white portraits? According to Colby Caldwell, a DC-based artist and professor, who gave one of the museum's Friday Gallery Talks last week, part of the fun of the exhibit is figuring out what Beshty is up to.

"He's trying to put together a conversation," Caldwell says, pointing first to the photograms. To create a photogram, the artist lays out objects on top of photographic paper and exposes them to light. "The thing that is happening here is the interaction between light and time," Caldwell explains. His evidence is that Beshty invests great detail into the titles of his art, including the angles of light sources, along with the site and date where a work is created. (For example, pictured above is Six Color Curl (CMMYYC): Irvine, California, July 18th 2008, Fuji Crystal Archive Type C, 2008.)

But what does this have to do with the boxes? Well, another clue is the black and white photographs, hanging salon style in the corner of the exhibit. They are portraits—of a curator, a studio manager, a FedEx delivery man, even the horizontal enlarger that created the prints. Through the various characters in the photographs, Beshty is telling the story of the artistic process.

Though the British and American artist's work is often categorized as abstract photography, Caldwell argues Beshty is more of practitioner. "His work has more in common with the Human Genome Project than art," Caldwell says. Rather than being the traditional photography show, Beshty uses his exhibit to explain the DNA of photography: Light, time, technology, people and just a bit of luck.

The black and white photographs, photograms, and the decaying glass boxes are all offspring of the same formula. Their existence with the space is like a conversation between siblings.

"Legibility on Color Backgrounds" is on view at the Hirshhorn through September 13. To learn more about the artist, check out this video produced by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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