Catherine Wagner, the Bay Area-based artist, has a knack for showing up in strange places. Back in 1995, she went behind the scenes of the Human Genome project, shooting monumental black and white photographs of the frozen samples in the labs’ archives. A few of the resulting pictures, titled 12 Areas of Concern and Crisis: 86 ̊ Freezers, were hung in an eminent collector’s home in London where Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Comme des Garcons and Dover Street Market, was struck by their “beauty, strength and power,” as she put it. Kawakubo reached out to Wagner, asking her to create 18-foot-high versions of the work to line the walls of Comme des Garcons’ flagship store in Kyoto. “At first, I was baffled,” says Wagner. “My freezers in a retail space? I was interested in the way genetics was changing our culture, our sense of our bodies, our notions of personal identity. Then I realized that Rei makes clothes that challenge received notions of the body.” The installation has since become an important stop on Japanese contemporary art tours; as the progressive impact of genetic research is felt, so the relevance of Wagner’s images intensifies.
Wagner has a predilection for working in public spaces outside museums and galleries, so when Kawakubo invited her to adapt her Frankenstein works for the designer’s new Dover Street Market store in London, she immediately agreed. Shot at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), Wagner’s Frankenstein series depicts the mysterious machines involved in accelerating electrons and conducting other experiments in high-energy physics. Strangely, the state-of-the-art equipment is covered in tin foil, a makeshift solution to heat insulation, which gives them a peculiar high-low tech appearance, suggestive of cybernetic monsters. “Mary Shelley’s novel was so prescient,” explains Wagner. “She asked questions about human accountability, social alienation and the nature of life itself.”
Three large framed Frankenstein works (soon to be shipped to a museum in Beijing for exhibition) lean against the wall of Wagner’s light-infused 2,600-square-foot studio in the Mission, a San Francisco neighborhood that still hosts many artists, despite the lure of cheaper rents in Oakland and Los Angeles. The studio is a model of self- sufficiency, with various workstations, a capacious storage room, kitchen and office containing two giant printers—an Epson and an HP Design Jet. “Everything gets done here,” explains the artist. “I couldn’t make the prints I make if I were farming them out. I need a lot of flexibility and control.”
Although born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County, Wagner grew up imagining herself a child of the world rather than an American. Her mother, a Spanish-Filipina, and her father, a half- Jewish German, met in Manila during World War II, then immigrated to the USA in 1948. The family’s diverse and hybrid nationalities made the artist acutely aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle filters that culture sets before our eyes. Upon graduating from high school, Wagner leapt at the opportunity to study abroad, spending two years surrounded by older artists at the Instituto del Arte, San Miguel de Allende, just outside of Mexico City. When she returned to the U.S., she started out at the San Francisco Art Institute, but found it “too much of a Halloween party.” She transferred to San Francisco State, where she found a serious cohort of likeminded creative types, eventually graduating with an MA.
Wagner has always been interested in the big philosophical questions—particularly the impact of the man-made on life, space, nature and culture. Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a great admirer of her work. “Whereas Edward Weston and Ansel Adams made deep dives into the object itself, Catherine goes beyond the physical attraction of things,” he says. “She uses photography as a real tool for understanding. The success of her work is in the human activity that is implied or anticipated, but not present in the image.”
Learning is a key theme in Wagner’s practice. Her first body of work to garner awards and museum acquisitions was American Classroom (1986). In it, she investigated schools across the country, making still lives that explored visual styles of education. Jock Reynolds, Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, sees Wagner as an important photographer with “no dips in her career.” He affirms, “It makes sense to have Catherine’s work at a big research university with a great teaching museum. Students from all course backgrounds come to the gallery and Catherine’s work goes beyond the usual art-school subject matters.”
Sales of her pictures are such that Wagner has no financial need to teach, but she has nevertheless, for more than 30 years, taught at Mills, California’s premiere women’s college, established in 1852. “I like to step outside of the studio and contribute in a totally different way. I don’t want to be just in the world of my own head,” she explains. “I need to be in an environment with rigor. I have travelled extensively to other colleges, but I always return to Mills.” Another factor anchoring Wagner in the Bay Area is her partner, Loretta Gargan, a landscape architect. “I feel fortunate that I met my soulmate early,” she says.
Wagner has a dozen exhibitions and public projects on the horizon, but the photographic series that will eventually be seen by millions is Moscone Center, which is being etched on black granite and installed in San Francisco’s new subway stop, nicknamed “Museum Station” for its location next to SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The photographs were initially made in the 1970s when the artist was in her twenties. Wagner managed to get weekend access to a massive construction site in the newly christened neighborhood of SOMA (South of Market). “It was about a place that was undergoing extreme change,” she explains. “I saw it as an archeology in reverse.” Midway through the building the convention center, in 1978, gay activist Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated. The site was named the Moscone Center, adding a poignant graveyard connotation to her images of architectural excavation. “I’m not an artist with a picket sign,” says Wagner. “I always hope to present people with conundrums because, for me, thinking is a sensual pleasure.”