Douglas Marshall on Albarrán Cabrera
Don't Take Pictures! Magazine Spring 2020
Albarrán Cabrera, a collaborative duo based in Barcelona, use gold leaf in photographs not for simple decoration or nostalgic flamboyance, but rather its unique ability for reflective illumination and contemplative significance. “Not mere extravagance” as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote in his 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics In Praise of Shadows, in which he espoused the elegant use of gold leaf for illumination in the shadowy corners of pre-electricity rural homes. The essay’s expression of gold as an almost mystical medium of luminance seems apt to Albarràn Cabrera’s use of it as a printing substrate for its ability to produce “an ephemeral glow” from underneath the thin layer of gampi paper that bears their color images. Printmaking, the creation of textural and tangible photo-objects is for them, always paramount.
A bit of backstory… In order to bridge the organic textures of their early work as black-and-white photographers using cotton papers in platinum and cyanotype printing, they implemented the fibrous Japanese gampi paper for a new direction into color work. The sub-layering of gold leaf that followed was inspired by a range of art-historical contexts from Russian Orthodox Iconography and Byzantine painting to, more clearly, Japanese Byōbu folding screens and printmaking techniques. First used in their ongoing series The Mouth of Krishna, the metallic layer is never overtly apparent, glowing subtly through the image’s highlights and giving the image an overall iridescent warmth. The artists explicitly cite Tanizaki’s writing as source material and introduced the concepts to me in one of our first meetings; “In a dark room with a golden object in the corner, the moment a tiny ray of light touches this object it will glow in that darkness creating a beautiful atmosphere and a kind of mystery.”
In Albarrán Cabrera’s body of work Kairos, which seeks to photographically represent the metaphysical idea of “the eternal present”, the use and revelation of gold leaf serves a conceptual purpose grounded in Eastern philosophy and aesthetics. In prints from the series, the phantom idea of “Now” is represented by delicately removing a section of the image surface, which reveals an amorphous and imperfect strip of gold leaf, separating two subsequent exposures of a scene (past and future) taken moments apart. “The perception of this line, like the fact of ‘seeing the present’, can be more or less obvious, but the less visible it is, the further from the truth our reality is.” The artists’ most recent series, Nyx, displays the evolution of an earlier specialization in platinum-palladium printing and its warm black tones on gampi paper over gold leaf, referencing the series’ inspiration in the Greek creation myth of the black bird and the golden cosmic egg. Throughout the duo’s oeuvre, the use of materials, content, and compositions arise from a literary and historical wellspring, tastefully applied with humble intent.
The printmaking craftsmanship and philosophies is what initially drew me to Albarrán Cabrera’s work as it had such a profound effect on the way I viewed the world afterward. Shouldn’t art always serve this purpose?