A sinister familiarity bleeds through the tintypes in "Michael Koerner: My DNA," the upcoming solo exhibition at Catherine Edelman Gallery. Silver crystals splinter across the dark-hued images, bordering oblong abstractions that overlap like Venn diagrams. These images are subtle introductions to Koerner's personal history with chemical processes and their related traumas. Upon closer inspection, the delicate fractals appear like firework explosions or the edges of a disaster-signaling mushroom cloud, a reference to the hydrogen bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, just 45 miles from Koerner's mother's childhood home. The tragedy caused tens of thousands of immediate deaths in addition to widespread and longer-term complications due to gamma radiation, which has directly impacted Koerner's family for the seven decades since the blast.
In addition to explosion-shaped images, Koerner's tintype chemigrams feature forms akin to X-rays, cellular formations, or mutated organisms growing under a microscopic lens. Koerner borrows the classification "chemigram" from Belgian artist Pierre Cordier, who began using chemicals on light-sensitive paper in the late 1960s. Like the more direct explosive imagery, these also relate to Koerner, who inherited genetic mutations from his mother's proximity to the bomb and his father's proximity to a testing site for thermonuclear devices after his service in the Korean war that have presented their own complications in his life. Both his parents died from cancer-related illnesses. One of their sons was miscarried, another was stillborn, another died shortly after birth, and Richard, the only child besides Koerner who survived beyond infancy, died from lymphatic cancer when he was just 32 years old.
"I am the only surviving sibling of a family of five brothers, and there is some guilt associated with that," says Koerner. "Why do I get to survive? All of my artwork references this theme of genetic mutations and cancer in my own life, in addition to my brothers, my mother, my father, fiancees, girlfriends, friends of friends, aunts, and uncles who have all suffered from cancer. This is a story that I can't get away from."
Koerner has worked with photography since 2004. Over the years his practice has slowly moved into chemical-based works, as he began focusing more on the process behind the photographic image and less on its pictorial outcome. Koerner took a workshop with France Scully Osterman at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, in 2009 that helped clarify a few of his techniques, but a majority of his chemical choices and processes have been completely self-taught. Each six-by-eight-inch work is created by dripping and layering chemicals onto the surface of a metal plate covered with thickening agents, such as agar gum or honey, in a process akin to painting. This creates abstract images Koerner only partially controls. The natural reactions form double helices, mountainous peaks, and appendage-like shapes that mirror his own hands.
"Something that will be in every piece I make are these fractals, these pure silver growth patterns," explains Koerner. "I can't control that. Sometimes they grow long, spindly, treelike patterns, and sometimes they are short and stubby. I don't have a choice, and I love that about this abstraction. A photographer never creates the tree they took a picture of, they are just there to capture the light that reflects off of it. That is what nature gives you. I like the fact that the fractals are also formed by nature, and that their growth references the mutations in my own DNA."
When he's not experimenting with tintypes in his basement studio, Koerner teaches advanced organic chemistry to prehealth students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His teaching methodology ties many of his lessons to firsthand experiences with family or friends who have suffered from cancer, and presents personal stories alongside chemicals. For example, while drawing the symbol for doxorubicin, a cancer chemotherapeutic with terrible side effects that's used to slow down the proliferation of cancer cells, he might tell a story about a patient he would talk to while his father was receiving his own treatment for cancer.
Koerner chose tin as the medium for his photographs rather than the more modern photographic selection of paper. The photographer clings to the permanence of the metal-based works, proven over centuries to have the material integrity that will last a lifetime and beyond. "I am purposefully making works that are on a metal plate, a permanent object," he explains. "That permanence is there by choice. I could do this on paper, I could do this on glass, but I am picking a medium that is not going to fade. They are not going to oxidize, they aren't going to go away." v