Looking at images in Karl Haendel’s exhibition Weeks in Wet Sheets, one might imagine stepping into a virtual space – given the basic shapes cut out of cardboard that fill up the walls, the works’ bright monochrome backgrounds and, not least, the impressive definition of Haendel’s large-scale, photo-realist black-and-white pencil drawings – but it’s not like that. In reality you feel cardboard crumpling underneath your feet, see uneven pencil hatching within the works and notice cut edges of paper. The installation is still awe-inspiring in its immersiveness, but while producing disjunctions between varying economies of speed, value and attention.
Weeks in Wet Sheets, with its watery idea manifested in the visualization of an array of aquatic subjects (from heavy-suited divers in Immersion Suit, 2014, to water bottles to a list of the water-related titles of Bob Dylan), contains pencil illustrations of animals – an otter, crane, walruses, a toad – that enjoy damp habitats. There’s a cat too, snoozing on top of a radiator (Cat on Radiator, 2015), resonating with the actual radiators in the room that begin to gurgle as autumn takes hold; water is in the snow under the feet of a mountaineer seen on top of a peak, as well as the rink on which two ice-hockey players are caught in a forceful tumble.
Among the circulating processes of cleansing, cleaning, plumbing, consumer goods, nature, man-made hazards and zodiac signs, a typology of pictures emerges: an arrangement of wine and cheese has the immediacy of a stock image (Salinas, 2015), as does the sleeping cat; a young woman in sportswear holding a bottle of water is likely sourced from social media or a publicity shot (Work Out, 2015); the animals might be from National Geographic; and there are pictograms, animation graphics and typography. Compare the different forms, and a posing body, for example, breaks down into constituent parts – cleavage, bottom, flexed muscles, a pout.
In previous works Haendel produced his own source photography that he then put through processes of distortion to lose definition and gain image noise. It is difficult to experience this show, though, without relating it to the experience of using a search engine, the scattergun approach of throwing in reference terms and rapidly scanning the results returned by algorithm. A single image becomes one small element of an endless mosaic. Yet Haendel’s works counter the logic of rapid circulation by virtue of the time and labour of his enterprise, the size of his pieces (larger than a screen and revealing the limitations of onscreen images) and his intuitive visual and typological schemes. He also includes a play with the physics of gravity; drawings are arranged up the walls stacking one on the other, seeming to teeter on the points of cut-out shapes, a hippo nosing over the edge of a triangle, say (Hippo, 2014). The exhibition invitation features an image of an adult baptism, the would-be initiate held in the water, waiting to be immersed. That one image compresses a lot of what Haendel brings into focus: self-confidence amid a reliance on external systems, be they new or old; confluences between direct and mediated experience; and whether we think more about what we are doing or what we are communicating.