“[T]he camera enabled travellers to control the unknown visually so that sense could be made of it…. Voyagers could send back images of exotic lands, a vast and untamed Other, to thrill those at home.” Susan Bright.
In her essay on landscape photography published in “Art Photography Now” (Aperture, 2005) Susan Bright writes about the first decades of photography’s existence – the mid- to late-1800s, an age when travel and access to “exotic lands” was restrictive at best. It’s fascinating to visit “New Territory: Landscape Photography Today” (now at the Denver Art Museum through September 16, 2018) and to see how decisively contemporary artists have moved towards abstracting representations of the landscape, where once they sought to clarify them.
Collectively, the imagery in “New Territory” presents something akin to Donald Rumsfeld’s philosophy of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns: complicated, somewhat blasphemous, and wryly inspirational. The show’s complications begin as soon as one enters the installation and encounters a “Let’s Play!” invitation to don filtered glasses and access hidden information. Sorry, but I’d rather wait. “Wood Wave XLIX,” an impressive hurricane wave triptych on wood by Clifford Ross, introduces the imagery, beyond which a mysterious void promises a surprise but delivers nothing more exciting than a hidden exit, a design flaw that foretells similar problems as the show progresses.
Beyond “Wood Wave,” Abelardo Morell’s camera obscura images made inside tents in national parks introduce a clever twist to a familiar trope; Morell photographs the projected image of the outside space – created naturally by means of his camera obscura tent – against the ground, which has the effect of creating a substrate of stones, leaves, and natural groundcover overlaid by iconic landscapes (one, of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, shows the geyser erupting.)
Morell’s elegant work is an early puzzle-piece, a primer of sorts for Penelope Umbrico’s nearby appropriations of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston landscapes. Umbrico’s “18, 297,350 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 04/16/14” (2014), which appears later in the show, is an iconic collage of variable dimensions intended to “reinforce the repetition of imagery on social media.” Where the visionary simplicity of that piece resonates with heart and mind, her “Range: Masters of Photography” series feels uncomfortably forced. I tried to wrap my head around it at the David B. Smith Gallery some time ago and failed miserably – it seemed conceptually redundant then, and it remains so now, unlike Alison Rossiter’s deceptive experiments with outdated and obsolete photo paper.
Cameraless “photogenic drawings” and photograms date back to photography’s earliest days. Here, Rossiter’s small black-and-white prints conjure up ephemeral landscapes made in Pictorialist and Modernist styles – my regional associations were to Laura Gilpin and Ray Whiting and to their mentors, Clarence White and Edward Weston – yet they were made without the involvement of light or film, solely by processing the paper in developer in the darkroom. Equally compelling was one stark monochrome work by Marco Breuer, who shaved away the black emulsion from a sheet of exposed gelatin-silver paper to form a vivid snowscape-at-night abstraction. These simple, formal pieces were among the show’s most resonant, so much so that I was inspired to make some faux landscapes of my own, photographing reflections on the gallery’s polished wood floor with my iPhone. I’m glad now I didn’t Instagram them, unlike, I think, the small child who was studiously documenting every single picture in the show with her mobile.
Beyond a familiar triptych of Sally Mann pinhole images one finds Matthew Brandt – quite a lot of Matthew Brandt as it turns out. The show’s curator, Eric Paddock, gifted him with a large passage-like area crammed with Brandt’s tall, vertical color imagery. Like Morrell, Brandt twists a familiar trope by wrapping very large C-print images of Hawaiian rain forests in burlap and lace, which he then buries for months, during which time the emulsion slips and slides and the prints become discolored; later, one assumes, they are rewashed or rephotographed (there is often a real lack of information just when you need it, despite the show’s intrusive audio statements voiced by the artists.) His prints have all the allure of velvetine wallpaper rescued from an inundated cellar; it’s ugly but somehow entrancing.
Despite the range of work in “New Territory” there is nothing in the way of installation, video, web-based media, or texture. This lack of media diversity made me nostalgic for DAM’s vibrant “Mi Tierra” exhibition (2017) of site-specific work by Latino artists, several of whom worked with photography. Something along the lines of Daniela Edburg’s “Uprooted,” for example, which employed photography, crocheted “roots,” fabric, and ephemera to investigate Colorado’s Front Range histories of migration and settlement, would have expanded the scope of materials, softened the space, and introduced a much-needed sculptural element to the show.
Some works more than others inspire the sardonic response to “New Territory” that nothing is new. Straight documentary work is an especially problematic genre in this context, and needs to be conceptually exceptional to earn its place. Mark Ruwedel’s grid installation, “Wonder Valley Survey,” as an obvious example, has to be compared to the voluminous works of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Lewis Baltz, or Robert Adams, and he is not well served by being included here. But then again, Richard Misrach’s sole document of a prototype section of Trump’s Wall reminds one of his decades of brilliant work in the American West; Edward Burtynsky’s aerial view of an irrigated Texas farm likewise is a reminder of his world-wide documentation of damaged landscapes; and Chris McCaw’s lone “Heliograph #77” made me want to see a lot more of his unique (in every way) sun-burned skyscapes.
Two local artists stand out as one moves to the show’s fragmented conclusion: Gary Emrich, who has been working in video, sculpture, and photography for many years in Denver, is represented by three oversized color images from his “All Consumed” series (2017). The pieces were created on a copy stand using flattened water bottles and other consumer detritus. Emrich’s underlying message about consumer waste, water or the impending lack of it, and the appropriation of landscape imagery by corporations, makes the work as politically compelling as it is aesthetically, especially given its location adjacent to Burtynsky and David Maisel’s aerial depictions of environmental pollution.
Sami Alkarim’s “Dream 2” (2009) is part of a concluding installation of images that circle back to Clifford Ross’s opening wave imagery. Alkarim, who is based in Denver and, like Emrich, is represented by Robischon Gallery, has created mural-sized renderings of idealized places – meditative visions of nature-as-escape that emanate from his experience of being a political prisoner in Iraq. Like other pieces located elsewhere in the exhibition, they exist as a mindscape. As Paddock describes in a section text, they are “less about the land and more about the passing of time, or the ghosts of a time long past.”
The pleasures of “New Territory” are many, but they are challenged the show’s inherent problems. The title alone is worth its own essay. In the context of photography, “New Territory” promises contemporary approaches to photographic image-making within the landscape genre. It’s snappy and clever, but problematic because it also aligns the show with the historical baggage of colonialism and westward expansion. In the context of place – Denver – the words “New Territory” suggest stolen Native land, Manifest Destiny, cultural genocide, and other catastrophic issues. Issues that could, perhaps should, have been addressed in the show, but are not.
Even the so-called shock of the new sometimes needs a grounding in the past, and “New Territory” might have benefitted from some historical context. The mid-20th century masters of landscape photography created a modernist vision of the West that lasted until the early 1970s, when the “New Topographics” movement introduced not just social commentary but also color to the genre. An introductory section establishing the history of how “new” aesthetics and approaches emerged would not have been out of place, especially in a tourist destination like DAM (and yes, without their representation I do think it’s too much of a stretch to credit “New Territory” for consciously invoking “New Topographics”).
Paddock states in his introduction that he hopes “New Territory” will inspire us to “remember . . . and hold our planet dear”; as such, his notion of success has less to do with newness and more to do with kindling a connectedness to the landscape. But in reality, the show’s effectiveness hinges on its delivery of “new.” For many people I’ve talked to, it succeeds completely in that regard. The most consistent complaint I’ve heard has been that it is just too big. As one colleague put it, “twenty images too long.” Like her I was feeling quite worn down by the time I reached Sami Alkarim’s section near the exit, and my enthusiasm was all but drained. Despite the inundation of new processes, reconfigured tropes, and earnest documentation, I felt strangely disconnected from the landscape as I left the galleries. In the New Territories, amidst the dense forest of ersatz innovation, I found I had lost sight of the trees.