I wrote an essay on photographer Robert Adams, novelist Marilynne Robinson, and landscapes as sacred spaces that has been published in Issue Eight of The Common, a literary journal about “the modern sense of place.”
Eden, unworthiness, ultimate judgment, grace: Adams’s is a biblical language of sin and possible redemption. Thinking of the Riverside picture in these terms, one can understand the blinding whiteness of the sun as a metaphor. Not only is it representative of our own destructiveness, suggesting that the further we push down the path of sprawl and development, the less of the current landscape’s beauty we’ll be able to see; it is also a symbol of our inability to comprehend what lies beyond this process—whether you believe that is more like heaven or hell. In Adams’s view, the landscape is sacred. And the quality of attention he gives to it is itself a form of prayer. At Yale, while I looked at hundreds of Adams’s beautiful photographs, beautiful even when they are records of humankind’s most wanton destruction, the treatment of landscape in an altogether different artist’s work came inexorably to mind.
Published in Artforum, November 2012. For more information about and images from the exhibition, click here.
There are two dominant ways in which photographers have envisioned the landscape of the American West. One, glorying in the land and emphasizing descriptive specificity, is rooted in government-survey pictures of the 1870s; the other, wry and admonishing, arrived a century later under the banner of New Topographics. But outside its well-documented urban areas, how have American photographers framed the country’s eastern half? Eliot Porter rendered Maine foliage in Technicolor, Paul Strand spent time in New England, and Joel Meyerowitz caught seaside towns based in rosy Cape light, but prevailing themes can be difficult to discern. In these parts, painters have had the upper hand, from bucolic Hudson River School scenes to Winslow Homer’s churning waves to the bonhomie captured by Porter’s brother Fairfield. It makes sense, then, that James Welling, a photographer born in Connecticut but long identified with the Los Angeles he calls home, has used a painter as a route back to the landscape of his childhood.
As do many exhibitions of Welling’s photos, this show blithely intermixed visually dissimilar works, and here there were two abstract series—one of ink-jet prints, one of gelatin silver prints derived from photograms—that evoker painterliness in a general way. The stronger works, which comprised the majority of the show, were exceedingly specific and representational, engaging directly with the life and legacy of Andrew Wyeth. Several years ago, Welling began visiting Wyeth’s homes and studios in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine. One of his aims was to re-create some of Wyeth’s most well-known canvases, including the iconic Christina’s World, 1948, The Revenant, 1949, and End of Olsons, made in 1969, just after Christina’s death. Varying in their fidelity to the original paintings, the resultant images show the ways in which the landscape has changed since Wyeth painted it and depict these places in different seasons, encouraging viewers to meditate on the passage of time. So, too, does Welling’s use of a mechanical eye highlight the imaginativeness of Wyeth’s “conservative” realism; the painter rendered domestic details in his own idiosyncratic way.
In addition to his photographic reconstructions of Wyeth’s famous vistas, Welling attempts to show what Wyeth saw from day to day. Many of these photographs offer close-up views of the buildings’ interiors: a weathered door at the Olson house; a dark-painted cabinet hanging high on a wall; Wyeth’s easel, studio mirror, and collection of dry pigments. Desiccated northern light, somehow at once pale and bright, is a leitmotif, and is what makes Glass House, 2010, my favorite photograph in the show. Interior and exterior merge: Three windows spanning the corner of an upper story are caked with a thin layer of frost that matches the whitewashed walls and window frames. Yet for all its confusion of space, Glass House also offers comforting protection from the elements. Perhaps such shelter defines one iconic vision of the New England landscape.
Those familiar with Welling’s work will recognize the title of this photograph as the site of another recent series: the iconic modernist retreat designed by Philip Johnson as his own Connecticut home and completed, a year after Christina’s World, 1949. In Johnson’s building, too, windows both admit nature (visually) and keep it at bay. For his “Glass House” works, 2006–2009, exhibited at this gallery in 2010, Welling used filters to metaphorically transform the expansive plate glass into a prism throwing psychedelic colors onto Johnson’s immaculate gardens.
Published on Artforum.com on October 5, 2012. The exhibition remains on view at Nicole Klagsbrun until October 27.
The austere geometry and muscular presence of architect Louis Kahn’s late designs infuses the photographs Barney Kulok has taken of the Four Freedoms Park. In this exhibition, however, one won’t find conventional documentation of the park’s allée of linden trees, its open granite “room” at Roosevelt Island’s southern tip, or its bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt created by Jo Davidson. Kulok, who was granted access last year to the construction site, has instead brought back chiaroscuro fragments—moody gelatin silver prints that demonstrate remarkable tonal range and control but explain little about the late master’s final design. As often as not, Kulok seems simply to be photographing whatever was resting at his feet. The results, however, are quietly thrilling.
In addition to distilling something of Kahn’s design principles, these twenty-three images also demonstrate that Kulok has deeply internalized the legacy of Minimalist and post-Minimalist sculpture. One can walk through the gallery’s two rooms assigning to individual photographs entries from Richard Serra’s 1967–68 Verb List. “To scatter”: Untitled (Cobble Constellation) (all works cited, 2011) depicts a chance array of loose granite paving blocks resting atop those already laid in neat rows. “To suspend”: Untitled (Improvised Plumb Line), an image of a dangling brick, isolated against a dark, pockmarked wall. “To heap”: Untitled (Joint Filler), a pile of the eponymous material that exhibits such sharp contrasts between light and dark as to seem unreal, like a Photoshop tweak or a darkroom mistake. Others, with their bent wires and bits of stone and wood and earth, call to mind Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, or Carl Andre. The photographs’ charcoal-rubbed wooden frames give them a solidity, an objectness, that further aligns them with this sculptural precedent—and with Kahn’s resolutely tactile architecture. Visitors’ experiences of the park will undoubtedly range widely. For viewers of these images, Kulok has expanded that range still further, and tapped into something elemental that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
The writer Mark Lamster interviewed me about “The Permanent Way” for Design Observer. We discuss revisionist histories of Gilded Age America, the difficulty of choosing photographs for an exhibition, and the “visual rhetoric” of westward expansion, among other topics. Click here to read the transcript of our discussion. The exhibition remains on view at apexart in New York until July 28.
This essay accompanies “The Permanent Way,” an exhibition I have organized for apexart. It opens Wednesday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through July 28, 2012.
July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroad. The law, in conjunction with the Homestead Act (passed just six weeks earlier), signaled the government’s commitment to westward expansion even as the union itself was imperiled by civil war. It provided thirty-year government bonds and extensive land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, which used these concessions to build over 1,700 miles of track. In May 1869, the two roads were joined at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory. Other transcontinentals followed soon thereafter.
Historians have long debated the economic and political value of these railroads. For Alfred Chandler, the growth of the railroad companies required an important “managerial revolution” that pointed the way to modern corporate capitalism. For Richard White, writing recently, the transcontinentals were thoughtlessly built ahead of demand, and the dramatic failures of these companies at the end of the nineteenth century unjustly imposed punitive costs on the public. All scholars of the railroads, however, agree that their amazing growth during the second half of the century fundamentally reshaped the American landscape. As White notes, “these railroads formed a lever that in less than a generation turned western North America on its axis so that what had largely moved north–south now moved east–west.”
The shift wasn’t only in the movement of goods, but also in the picture of America that its citizens carried in their minds. In recognition of the Pacific Railway Act’s anniversary, “The Permanent Way” considers the centrality of railroads to Americans’ understanding of the country’s landscape. Today, trains are a “natural” component of that picture, as essential as broad, grassy plains and mountain peaks in the distance.
That we take trains for granted was not always the case. Cultural historian Leo Marx’s important book The Machine In the Garden (1964) opens with the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying the tranquil environs of Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844. Hawthorne’s pastoral reverie is rudely interrupted:
But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.
The smoke-belching engines were an unfamiliar incursion, and Marx catalogues the affronted responses of numerous writers upset by the recognition that railroads would permanently alter their environment. Yet by the time of the Pacific Railway Act, just two decades later, the railroads had become an integral element of American life, for better and for worse. Time and space collapsed as people were able to travel further, faster, than ever before, and places without benefit of direct connection were woven together in a mesh of steel. The costs of such convenience, we now recognize, were enormous: the lives of the railroads’ (often immigrant) construction crews; the livelihoods of those pushed aside by the entering wedge of westward expansion; the political ideals corrupted by back-room business negotiations; the savings erased when lines failed to materialize or collapsed. Yet there was no going back. In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, the mileage of operating railroad track more than doubled, to seventy thousand. As landscape writer John Stilgoe notes, “Emerson and his contemporaries knew the train and the railroad as novelties; subsequent generations were born into a world in which trains seemed as commonplace as spiderwebs.”
Photography was itself a new invention in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and as a technology it grew up alongside railroads—especially in America, where the first accurate representations of a given place were often made by photographers working on behalf of railroad expansion. Surveys of this vast, largely uncharted territory were commissioned by the government and by the railroad companies themselves, and sent photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson out into the field. Their images, widely distributed through government documents, news-media reproductions, and tourist publications, played an especially important role in refashioning the imagined American landscape.
This exhibition includes a small selection of such materials, encompassing railroad maps, lithographs taken from illustrated magazines, other prints, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photo-postcards. From them, one can discover how quickly fresh observation gave way to visual convention. Axial views quickly become a stock-in-trade, whether depicting tracks receding to a single vanishing point in the distance or bisecting the frame parallel to the picture plane. So, too, one can repeatedly witness railroad engines, marvels of human ingenuity, overcoming adverse natural elements, as in the two nearly identical prints, from separate publications, depicting a train struggling through snowdrifts, its headlamp a beacon of progress.
Subsequent generations of photographers have walked the same trails, navigated the same canyons, forded the same rivers, and ascended to the same peaks as these men did during the “Era of Exploration.” They have also responded to the visual tropes inherited from earlier eras. The artists included in this exhibition are not exclusively engaged with depicting railroads, or even solely concerned with the American landscape. Nonetheless, at various points in their careers each has found the railroads—or their ruins—a subject worth exploring.
Of the five artists included in this exhibition, Mark Ruwedel, based in southern California, is most closely identified with railroads. His series “Westward the Course of Empire” (1994-2007) documents with taxonomic precision the remains of North American lines. In a gesture reminiscent of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel exhibits small black-and-white photographs as grids arranged by type: trestle bridges, cuts through rock faces, tunnel mouths, paths through field and forest. The Bechers survey industrial plants, and Ruwedel’s adoption of their signature technique highlights the “industrial” nature of even the most rural Western outpost. Despite focusing upon abandoned rail infrastructure, his lens necessarily captures evidence of the land’s other uses, thereby demonstrating how the rails were but one human use of the landscape in an unending succession of uses. Even when the environment is seemingly pristine, as in the photographs by Jeff Brouws presented here, one can’t help but be aware of human incursion, of the fact that human places are necessarily palimpsests. Best known for his photographs of the signs, buildings, and infrastructure of vernacular and decaying American landscapes, Brouws’s images here are by contrast remarkably restrained. Working near his Dutchess County home in upstate New York, the artist sought out traces of the competing agricultural and dairy railroads that helped feed New York’s hungry mouths and slake its thirst. The resultant works show no evidence of this bustling industry save for their pathways, the quiet negative space an inversion of the sites’ former bustling activity.
The complexity depicted in these photographers’ landscapes can have economic, social, political, and cultural manifestations. In many of her photographs, Victoria Sambunaris manages to reveal several such entanglements at once. She seeks “phenomena that are ubiquitous and familiar to a particular region but are anomalous to an ordinary eye,” and often finds an elevated or distant vantage point from which to highlight incongruities. So it is with a photograph included in this exhibition.Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, from her ongoing series “The Border,” depicts a rail line bending dramatically as it skirts the US-Mexico border. At this site, robbers from nearby Anapras, Mexico, had regularly thrown items onto the Union Pacific tracks to force the trains to stop, after which men would sieze the cargo and carry it directly across the border. The FBI organized a sting in 2000 that went awry, leaving two agents badly injured. The railroad still operates along this corridor, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods through dangerous borderland territory and highlighting, with each run, economic disparity and social tension.
Justine Kurland’s images often feature people who have oriented their lives to particular places. They become, frequently by choice, socially marginalized, interacting as much with like-minded communities as with the broader population. In her recent series “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” Kurland focuses upon the subculture of the nomadic hobo—as both romantic American myth and quotidian lived reality. In the unpopulated images from the series chosen for this exhibition, one can sense the landscape as these particular inhabitants view it, with trains accorded a central role.
James Welling’s railroad photographs, made two decades ago, are but one facet of a prismatic career that encompasses abstractions, architectural photography, and experiments with the properties of the medium. In this exhibition they offer the closest look at the infrastructure of working railroads, and by extension the trains themselves. The engines move through a space that Stilgoe dubs the “metropolitan corridor” to indicate both its technological sophistication and its sense of in-betweenness and linkage. In Welling’s documentary images, one can witness how the complexities described above are mirrored in an intricacy manifested along the route.
Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad, from roadbed to rails. Here it is shorthand for the epochal shift these railroads caused in our picture of America. This exhibition commemorates the momentous decision, taken 150 years ago, to commit to the railroads’ expansion, and reflects upon how even its greatest champions could not have predicted how transformative such a choice proved to be.
“The Permanent Way”
Organized by Brian Sholis
On view at apexart, 291 Church Street, New York, from June 6 – July 28, 2012
Opening reception: Wednesday, June 6, 6–8 PM
Featuring art by: Jeff Brouws, Justine Kurland, Mark Ruwedel, Victoria Sambunaris, James Welling
July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroads. This exhibition marks the occasion by bringing together American landscape photographs by living artists with archival material charting the expansion of railroads during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad. Here it is shorthand for how railroads dramatically reshaped Americans’ notion of the country’s landscape. Cultural historian Leo Marx related Nathaniel Hawthorne’s horror, in 1844, at the intrusion of smoke-belching locomotives into his beloved Sleepy Hollow. Yet by the time the Pacific Railway Act was passed two decades later, railroads were pervasive and inextricably woven into Americans’ lives. Even the most isolated rural residents were tethered to urban centers by the steel rails running through nearby fields. This ubiquity guaranteed for railroads a seemingly permanent place in the American unconscious. Ask someone today to describe an iconic American landscape and you’re likely to be told of fields stretching away to mountains at the horizon and a train passing through in the middle distance. This image was fixed in part by now-celebrated nineteenth-century photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson.
The photographers in this exhibition are not concerned exclusively with railroads, or even with American landscapes. Nonetheless, they are sensitive interpreters of their environment, and each has at some point noticed the continuing power and imaginative pull of railroads—or of their ruins. “The Permanent Way” uses an important anniversary to celebrate their work and to place it in a historical context.
Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and 1970s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films, and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions—of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises—both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.
Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take, and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ‘60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) ad rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.
The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to September 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced.
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[Two excerpts from the middle of the interview]
SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?
BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things … and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.
SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?
BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.
SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.
BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now—I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.
SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?
BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the works’ intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.
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SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?
BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.
SHOLIS Near the water?
BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks—my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.
I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs—shabby America.
SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?
BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.
SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you send them on.
BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up unbecoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.
Published in Artforum, April 2012. The exhibition remains on view at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College until April 28. For more information, click here.
In the half-century after World War II, cities across the United States and Europe underwent structural transformations. In America, middle-class whites fled downtowns for the safety and amenities of suburbs, leaving behind a minority “underclass” to struggle through the shift to a post-industrial economy. In Europe, it was the poor who were pushed to urban fringes (think Parisian banlieues) while central districts became jewel boxes cosseting the wealthy. On both sides of the Atlantic, cities themselves sprawled outward, yoking an increasing number of once-independent suburbs to the larger metropolitan framework. “Peripheral Visions” gathers photographers who have examined the liminal zones these developments created in Italy—places neither wealthy nor extremely poor, not quite suburban yet with enough wildness to offset their urban density.
This concise, well-edited show, curated by Hunter College faculty member Maria Antonella Pelizzari, moves quickly through the decades, encompassing Mario Carrieri’s grainy late-1950s pictures of Milan’s edges and, just a few feet away, Vincenzo Castella’s ambiguous 2009 photograph of that city’s Pirelli tower, into which a small plane crashed in 2002. Pelizzari identifies Luigi Ghirri as the show’s presiding spirit, whose own work and 1984 curatorial effort, “Viaggo in Italia,” translated the postwar work of Carrieri, Paolo Monti, and filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica into a more playful, witty, conceptualist language that later practitioners would mimic. The absurdity that characterizes many of Ghirri’s pictures reaches its apotheosis here in Olivo Barbieri’s site specific_CATANIA 09, 2009, in which an enormous matte black orb rests incongruously amid brick industrial exhaust towers. The menacing egg is symbolic of very recent attempts to rehabilitate these peripheral spaces: it is a performing arts center located at the site of a defunct sulfur mine.
In contrast to the strange iconicity of Barbieri’s image, smaller gestures, unadorned observations of everyday life, predominate. Mimmo Jodice captures the dented corrugated sheet metal imperfectly covering a stone column in Church of San Marcellino, Naples, 1977. Mario Cresci, who envisions southern Italy as a “foreign” space within the country’s borders, transforms wires snaking along walls into poetic abstractions in Martina Franca, 1979. Guido Guidi, working a decade later, positioned himself directly at the leading edge of human incursion into the natural environment, his pictures juxtaposing messy construction sites and, in the distance, unpopulated mountain ranges. Other inclusions suggest one need not even travel to find incidents worth recording. Franco Vaccari simply shifted perspective for his 1971 film I cani lenti (The Slow Dogs), for which he crouched down and tried to see what the animals saw. Likewise, Marina Ballo Charmet’s digital slide show Con la coda dell’ occhio (With the Corner of the Eye), 1993-94, finds a stoic beauty in the weeds and debris that accumulate on dozens of street corners, turning curbs into walls against which her quarry is positioned.
Few of these images are populated, yet the insistent focus on textures seems like an attempt to reveal what such neglected spaces feel like to their inhabitants. Here are the loose, ragged edges of the urban fabric, the places that have suffered for decades the indifference of authority that in today’s economic climate, with its calls for austerity, seems our common fate. “Peripheral Visions” offers knowledge of a subject that increasingly occupies the minds of scholars and policymakers. The lessons to be drawn from such work remain unclear, but the sense of urgency is palpable.
Published in Artforum, March 2012. To learn more about the exhibition, click here to visit the Edwynn Houk Gallery website.
Robert Bourdeau trained and worked as an architectural technologist before an influential encounter with Aperture magazine and its editor, Minor White. A ten-year friendship with that elder statesman of photography encouraged Bourdeau to pursue the medium and embrace the emotional expressiveness on which White placed so much importance. Now in his eighties, Bourdeau is best known for landscape photographs in which the subject fills the entire frame, a compositional choice that emphasizes texture and occasionally creates odd spatial effects. Two pictures in this exhibition, his second at the gallery, exemplify this style. Yorkshire, England, 1985 is a straightforward depiction of scruffy northern fields, yet a low stone wall that divides the image horizontally adds a sense of strangeness. The wall masks a slope so that the land behind it appears as if a giant hand is pulling it upward, drawing it parallel to Bourdeau’s lens. Ontario, Canada, 1981 guilelessly portrays logs floating in a placid river. Yet the graphic contrast between the lightly colored bark and the water’s dark surface creates a pattern that Bourdeau must have known would recall Jasper Johns’s then-new crosshatch paintings.
The majority of the two dozen photographs in this show, however, depict industrial sites in varying states of disuse and decay. Despite the modest size of his prints—none exceed fourteen inches on their longest side—Bourdeau’s large-format camera allows him to describe these scenes with remarkable detail. Pennsylvania, USA, 1995 is a frontal view of a cylindrical tank. A stairway that cuts diagonally across the composition is the only straight line amid swirls of corrosion marking the tank’s surface, which bring to mind Gustave Moreau’s fanciful Symbolist backgrounds. Elsewhere, Bourdeau seems attracted to pairs, as evident in the twin silos and boulders in Virginia, USA, 1993, the double tuba-shaped metal piping in Lorraine, France, 1999, and the nearly symmetrical balance of Saarland, Germany, 1999. The most dramatic image is Pennsylvania, USA, 1997, in which an X-shaped metal brace stands before another cylindrical storage tank. The brace crosses in front of cascading rust and piles of debris, as if Bourdeau wanted to negate the scene—an X, after all, is what you might draw on a contact sheet to mark the photograph you don’t want to print. That some of the background detail is reflected in a pool of water at the bottom of the image is a virtuosic touch.
The attention granted these hulking machines and metal surfaces may bring to mind 1920s-era photographic celebrations of the power of industrial machinery, such as those by Albert Renger-Patzsch. But Bourdeau’s series, made in the 1990s across northwestern Europe and the United States, is opposite in feeling: With Romantic melancholy, he documents the demise of the era that Renger-Patzsch’s New Objectivist images heralded, offering evidence of globalization’s effects on first-world manufacturing economies. Perniciously high unemployment has once again brought the erosion of traditional manufacturing centers to the forefront of international consciousness. Such dilemmas make Bourdeau’s depiction of the material ruins of these changes all the more relevant.
Published in Artforum, December 2011. For more information about the exhibition, click here.
Puerto Rico, 2007, despite being one of only two photographs in this large exhibition to have been made outside the continental United States, is emblematic of photographer Richard Benson’s series “North South East West.” The image’s subject, an isolated fan palm tree at the edge of a parking lot, is representative in its humbleness and outdoor, out-of-the-way location. The sky behind it, as in many of the show’s photographs, is a rich cerulean, the clouds near the horizon puffy and white; shadows are nonexistent. And the palm’s visual similarity to a peacock’s tail feathers metaphorically represents a central element of Benson’s achievement: the rich and varied colors he creates with his “multiple impression pigment prints.” The slash of orange wending across the bottom of the frame is a bit unsettling in its brightness and purity. It must be seen in person to be believed—more so than usual, JPEGs on the gallery website do this work no justice.
We regularly encounter such saturation out in the world, yet when captured by a lens it has a tinge of surrealism, as if through digital manipulation the photographer is trying to trick us. Instead, Benson has devised a novel printing technique by which he isolates the image’s constituent parts into different layers, printing each separately after making minute color adjustments. (Benson even adapted his process for the related book, running each page through the press twice.) Traveling the country in an RV, Benson regularly stops to photograph what catches his eye—and sometimes, one suspects, what he thinks might make good use of his printing technique. There is a picturesque village of clapboard houses surrounding a village green clothed in snow. There are disused railroad cars and signage, as well as an image of tracks receding towards a far-off horizon. There is a mid-century commercial truck, parked alongside the highway to advertise Butch’s Place, and a row of roadside mailboxes, both with mountains in the distance. And a pile of hay bales is surmounted by an American flag. Each is rendered with precision, often from an oblique angle that invites the eye into the photograph.
The quality of light necessary to best achieve Benson’s chromatic splendor means that photographs taken in different parts of the country, or at different times of year, begin to look the same. Rhode Island, 2010, echoes New Mexico, 2006, which in turn echoes Nebraska, 2011. Because of this, our preconceived notions become what orient us in space: clapboard houses signify “New England,” while a lone utility pole in a vast, flat expanse of land signifies “The Great Plains.” Benson’s images rarely challenge our assumptions. And as the above list of his subjects indicates, Benson offers a vision of America that verges on kitschy Americana. There’s a glittering blue Ford Mustang on a lift at a mechanic’s shop in Virginia, a sailboat resting in a Rhode Island boatyard, and three small cabins abutting a Vermont lake. The colors in the latter photo are almost hallucinatory. Benson captures the precise moment when the setting sun turns both the sky and the lake’s surface cotton-candy pink, and at the same time describes accurately how the green of the grass differs from that of the painted cabins. The photograph is a compositional and technical achievement of the first order. It’s a disappointment that, cumulatively, this selection of Benson’s lovely travel images comes across like an antiques roadshow.