KUOW's art critic Gary Faigin points out that today marks the third time in six months he’s reviewed shows on this topic. Gary joins us now to discuss what this particular exhibition adds to the ongoing dialogue.
"I've come to believe that beauty can be a very powerful conveyor of difficult ideas," said Richard Misrach, the highly-influential California landscape photographer, and this view has certainly won over the six young photographers now on view at the Kirkland Arts Center. Their dramatic, skillfully composed photographs, mostly taken in rural locales throughout the Northwest, record landscapes that are both attractive as locations and disturbing as subjects, a tension which leaves the viewer both fascinated and perplexed. In every case it is the destructive presence of mankind that haunts these charged views, and some of the human interventions have been cataclysmic indeed.
Take the work of Spokane-based photographer Stephen Chalmers. The “difficult idea” in his case is the subject of serial killers, more specifically the remote locations where their victim’s bodies were eventually found. Chalmers, one of the instigators of the exhibition along with curator Jeff Nilan, was able to use public records to discover the exact geographical coordinates of these so-called “dump sites”, but by the time his documentary photographs were taken, all traces of what had earlier happened were gone. His straightforward color pictures use selective focus to guide the viewer through the mostly banal settings, with the sharpest focus reserved for that part of the location where the actual remains were found. The titles are as plain as the places, simply the name and age of the victim , all four of whom were young women.
"Linda Slawson (19)," must have been found in the water, for the picture to which her name is affixed is a close-up of a murky creek, with grey, spiky shrubbery framing a floating bit of mossy lumber, a stand-in for the victim herself. "Diann Remington (22)" is represented by a bit of tumbleweed on a barren plain, while "Anne Alderson (24)" is suggested by a swirl of woodsy debris in a forest clearing. One admires Chalmers for the restraint in these quiet photographs, quite the opposite of the voyeuristic hysteria that usually accompanies accounts of serial killings, which is not to say that they inspire me with new depths of compassion or identification with the victim. These pictures (and the project to collect them) are odd and intriguing, but they don’t offer us much real insight about murder and its aftermath - other than nature’s indifferent response, our personal dramas washed utterly away with the tide.
More successful as an aesthetic experience are Jonathan Long’s spectacular panoramas of the region in Eastern Idaho devastated thirty years ago by the collapse of a Bureau of Reclamation dam, a disaster that wiped out several small towns and took eleven lives. Long now lives nearby, and his sweeping, wide-angle views include stripped valleys, empty cement spillways, and deserted networks of access roads, all strangely devoid of life or purpose, fascinating in a perverse way. The very first issue of Life magazine featured a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana, purposely composed to recall the stupendous monuments of ancient Rome and Egypt; Long’s elegiac photographs record a precisely opposite cultural attitude towards such dubious engineering triumphs, the proud temples and towers reduced to rubble, and toxic rubble at that. His view inside an empty concrete chamber hundreds of feet long, covered with graffiti and littered with the remains of campfires (animal sacrifice?), is like a prison camp where our dreams of unspoiled nature have come to die, and the sheer scale makes it almost heroic, worthy of a tragic opera.
Very much in keeping with the work of Stephen Chalmers are the moody black-and-white photographs of Zach Mazur, whose pictures also record settings of murder and mayhem. In the case of Mazur, the killing fields he visits are places where Native Americans were the victims, but he chooses to focus his lens on the lands just beyond these historic massacre sites, rather than the sites themselves. By what he chooses to photograph, landscapes with no special qualities or drama, he is suggesting that the world has passed this bit of history by. Jian Yang also works in black and white, with his photos featuring derelict objects oddly placed by the artist in lonely and arid Eastern Washington settings.
The most curious inclusion in the show are a series of garishly colored digital images by a pair of photographers collaborating over the internet. In a show with such generally downbeat subject matter, their lush and romantic imagery, featuring elements such as pristine mountain ranges, lily pads and butterflies, seems oddly out of place, a throwback perhaps to the idealized landscapes of America’s Hudson River School painters.
In fact, the landscapes recorded by Stephen John Ellis and Brian Goeltzenleuchter are the most human-inflected of any in the show. The two artists have traveled throughout the virtual world of a gigantic website called Second Life, visiting a variety of the highly elaborate user-created environments it contains, and documenting them like any terrestrial photographer. And just like a real-world cameraman, they have framed particular views to achieve a desired effect. In the picture "Tir Niva," for example, the image in the show features a view of jagged, snow capped peaks against a black, spin drift sky. A cyber visit to the actual online location of Tir Niva reveals sword and sorcery details that the artists have wisely chosen to leave out, the dragon and castle being more of a distraction than an enhancement of the landscape itself.
There’s a sense that history in the modern era is sped up, telescoped. In the real world it took 500 years for landscape to emerge, blossom, and decay as a central subject for art and artists, a long trajectory from innocence, to euphoria, to disillusion. Historians of the future may well map a similar arc in the online world, from the rudimentary pixelated mazes of Pac Man and his ilk, to the lush jungles and islands of Second Life, to the poetically ruined, post-Romantic landscapes that are surely right around the corner.
FAIGIN ART REVIEWS:
A collection of reviews, featuring mostly NW artists, galleries and museums, on KUOW Radio from 2000 to 2012, in the Seattle Times from 2014 to present, and in other publications, as noted, beginning in 1993.
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