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Catherine Wagner
at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco, California
Recommendation by Cherie Louise Turner

Photographs of splints by Catherine Wagner set the medical devices against dramatically black backgrounds, their isolation and detail speaking volumes.

Catherine Wagner’s photographs of splints — the medical devices used to stabilize injuries and often associated with war wounds — and antique prostheses are riveting. Each of these technically precise images shows one device against a flat black background in gentle, even light; the device appears to float in the space. Isolated, showing fine detail, these images are intense. Splints and prosthetics are highly personal. They’re held tight or molded to the body and worn for protection and recovery, repair. Thus, the title of the exhibition “Reparations,” implying making amends. It’s a loaded concept especially in this time of multiple international conflicts, and also an indirect path from which to approach such difficult subjects. Wagner points us in a hopeful direction.

Wagner deliberately chooses to photograph splints and prostheses made at various points through history, thus there is a didactic angle that displays the progression that’s been made in this field of medicine. For all of their references and dramatic portrayal, these are highly evocative pieces. For some, they illicit fear, repulsion, or sadness. But they also symbolize healing and help: everything will be set right, allowing for a return to normal life. Behind each object, we know there is a story, perhaps glorious, perhaps tragic, perhaps comic. The absence of the person who wore the device begs the question of his or her fate. And then they are, in many cases, intriguing simply as sculptural pieces. These direct, thought-provoking images convey the power of a well-chosen and expertly photographed subject. 

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