Sunday, April 24, 2011

Earth & Sky

At the moment there are two photography exhibitions at the New Mexico Art Museum. One is titled “Cloudscapes” the other “Earth Now”. “Cloudscapes” is an exhibit of just 30 images in a single gallery. “Earth Now” is probably 3 times that many taking up the entire new exhibition wing of the museum.

For me the initial reaction to any art form is all important. Does the image, be it photograph, painting or pot, please me or in some way intrigue. If it doesn’t, why bother. The message the curator is trying to pass along through the combination of images presented is secondary, but certainly can make the total experience more interesting and worthwhile. Even when the curator’s message is not communicated, you hopefully have a collection of enjoyable images and don’t feel you are leaving empty handed.

I was not disappointed on either score in these two exhibitions. The images demonstrate the excellent eye of Kate Ware, curator of photography at the museum. I knew quickly that I had not wasted my time.

I have taken acceptable photographs since the age of six and in college took courses where themes were set for specific topics. I have found this a useful discipline, which I have continued. Clouds has always been one of my favorite subjects. They are ever-changing and can be lyrical or down right frightening but either way they are extremely difficult to capture. Therefore I went into “Cloudscapes”, an exhibition by the great old masters, predisposed to a positive experience.

The works in “Cloudscapes” show clouds in different states from puffs of clouds as in Laura Gilpin’s (1891-1979), “The Big Band Country” (1949) to “Storm from La Bajada Hill” (1946) by the same artist where one can actually see the rain pouring down in the distance. A great percentage of the images are in black and white of the earlier vintage that I grew up with.

“Earth Now” is about the environment that we presently live in and most of the contemporary material demonstrates how we have abused the land.

The introductory piece is a video entitled “Kamilo (Twisted Waters) The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (2010) by Robert Gaylor. As you are listening to the surf, you see a kaleidoscope of pieces of plastic, that are not bio-degradable, swirling in the waters in the ocean. The souvenir package that I picked up next to the video is filled with tiny pieces of plastic taken directly from the patch in the Pacific, with the label “Plastic is forever”.

In a staged image by Patrick Nagatani (1945-) called “Waste Isolation Plant, Nuclear Crossroads US 285, 60,54’, (1989) from the series “Scenes, Nuclear Enchantment” we see an interpretation of fouling (fowling) the land. A flat bed truck with large aluminum storage tanks presumably holding nuclear waste passes on a highway through a desolate rural area. Lying in the foreground before a roadside historical marked are three dead birds with their legs up in the air.

I relate more easily to earlier black and white photography and while that defines much of “Cloudscapes”, in “Earth Now” there are also a few early images of the land by Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and Elliot Porter (1901-1990). These are beautiful and lyrical which makes the contrast to the contemporary all the more stark.

One of the labels on the wall near the end of the exhibition deals with what has happened environmentally through the medium of photography. Both Adams and Porter were members of the Sierra Club who showed the beauty of the land, but like all photographers pre-1970 they used a toxic process to create their images. These incredible images caused people to want to visit these sites. But when they arrived in great numbers they trampled the land, ruining the very nature that they came to see.

This we can view explicitly in an image by Bill Owens (1938-) titled “Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona” that shows five Port-A-Sans on an asphalt road in the middle of beautiful Monument Valley.

I cannot finish without mentioning my favorite image in “Earth Now”, it is from a series “Grid Lines” by Bremmer Benedict, “Cedar Wash” (2002), who conveys the eerie majesty of the towers of power lines in rural spaces.

What I found most surprising in my own response to the two exhibitions was that while I was totally in love with “Cloudscapes”, and found “Earth Now” a great effort, I had far more to contemplate and learn from the latter.