Published in Aperture 199, Summer 2010. “Joe Deal: New Work” was presented at the RISD Museum of Art, Providence, September 4, 2009–January 3, 2010. A version of the show is on view at Robert Mann Gallery, New York, until May 8, and will then travel to the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, June 5–August 1, 2010. Deal’s West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains is published by the Center for American Places.
It is not hard to see how the Great Plains might have driven early American pioneers to agoraphobic distraction. Photographer Joe Deal hails from this empty region, and after several decades cataloging the interaction of people and landscape, often in the farther American West, he has returned here for his new series West and West. At first glance these square-format black-and-white photographs, twenty-three of which were installed close together in one room of this exhibition, appear relatively characterless, their uniform horizon line encircling the space. But, like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ostensibly simple photographs of open seas, upon closer inspection Deal’s images reveal a landscape full of incident. The land is threaded with streams, or is interrupted occasionally by a knotty rock formation. Small hills calve and fold. A random tree punctuates one scene like an exclamation mark.
Deal has compared the camera’s imposition of a frame on this environment to the mechanical act performed by surveyors. Yet early rationalist grids—such as Thomas Jefferson’s proposed division of the land west of the Appalachians, or the Kansas-Nebraska Act—caused speculators to disregard the landscape’s variety. Deal’s camera, by contrast, lovingly catalogs its diversity. The startling incongruity from picture to picture is highlighted by a trio of images hung close to one another in the show: Wash, Red Hills (2007), in which a shall natural depression reveals stratified layers of rock; Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains (2005), in which thin clouds hover just above a featureless black expanse; and Flint Hills (2006), which is strewn with lunar-looking rocks. The tension Deal achieves between strict regularity and variety, between grid and ground, is in large measure the source of these photographs’ power.
On another level, the minimalist compositions of West and West—each print is perfectly bisected by the horizon line—comment on what constitutes “landscape” to the human eye. A swipe of sky and swipe of ground: it’s as simple a definition as an artist can deploy. That Deal may have such abstract questions of representation in mind is underscored by the pictures from another recent series, Kars and Pseudokarst, installed in a second room. In this project, which takes its name from the two often indistinguishable types of caves it depicts, Deal has chosen to shoot both from the inside and the outside of the caves, resulting in two very different types of prints. When he peers in, the allover compositions give the impression that the cave mouths, whether dusty and rocky or fringed with green, allow passage through the surface of the print, literalizing the cliché about representational pictures being a “window onto a world.” Even more striking is the sensation, felt when looking at the images taken from within the caves’ dark interiors, that one is positioned inside a camera lens as it admits the light of day. In these two series, Deal, an integral part of the New Topographics cohort, subtracts the signs of humankind’s incurions into the “natural” landscape, which he is well known for recording. Yet he does not sacrifice the complexity of his meditations upon that landscape—upon not only the land itself, but also his particular means of representing it.