At first glance, Richard Gilles’ latest series, Towers, would seem to fit neatly into the New Topographics mold. His panoramic shots of grain, water, electrical and radio towers, taken in rural areas of the Central Valley, appear to be critiques of the so-called man-altered environment, presented as classic typological studies – updated to fit the times.
They are not. Look hard and you’ll see that Gilles has poured fresh content into a familiar vessel, that vessel being wide-open landscapes, which are marked by slender vestiges of industrial-agricultural intervention. Where the NP photographers lionized ugliness and gave unvarnished truth telling a new platform, Gilles takes an opposite tact: he wrests beauty from banality. Also: his pictures are not true typologies; they’re simply pairs of things, identical in each picture, but not similar across a series. This is not the mode in which we are accustomed to seeing Gilles. In his two prior series, Signs of the Times and Almost Homeless, Gilles took cool aim at, respectively, the soured economy of outdoor advertising and at the similarly curdled circumstances of people living in cars.
I won’t go so far as to call Towers a romantic vision, but here, at least temporarily, Gilles suspends his social-critical gaze in favor of a formal examination of the relationships between objects and their environments.
The pictures have a canny way of pulling you in. I find myself savoring this series the same way I do Deborah Oropallo’s paintings of 55-gallon drums; they probe ugliness in ways that make their otherwise abject subjects appealing. Chief Silos, two identical aluminum cylinders shot at midday in an empty field, have the preternatural clarity of a visitation dream. Striped Tanks, part of an irrigation or wastewater system, resemble large candy canes, capable of suckling a sugar-happy giant. The root-shaped concrete slabs pictured in Bridge Support can be read, if you’re inclined, as monuments to the waning days of Hydrocarbon Man, but are really throwbacks to the modernist impulse of demonstrating “equivalencies” between art, nature and industrial forms. Derricks Towers, a picture that divides into three horizontal bands, I find less than compelling, largely because it reminds me too much of Andreas Gursky’s photo of the Rhine river, the one that recently fetched a record $4.3M at auction. Terminal Power Towers, an image of trees encroaching on a power grid, carries more art-historical resonance; it reverses the usual narrative of such scenes while issuing a smart poke at the gauzy clichés of Pictorialism.
Part of what enables these transformations is Photoshop’s pano-stitch feature. But rather than accept the program’s standard output — long, skinny pictures — Gilles tweaks his images to achieve a point of view that more closely approximates the composites our brain generates automatically when we look at scenes that exceed our binocular vision. Gilles’ pictures bridge this gap so transparently you barely notice. Beyond that, he keeps the horizon lines low in the frame so that his subjects loom tall. The 15 prints in this show are all 21 x 48” – large, but modest by today’s standards.
At a vastly smaller scale, the New Topographics photographers produced a similar sensation of intimacy and dislocation by portraying strip malls and tract housing developments in an affectless, point-blank fashion. Gilles adopts the directness of their approach, but in aestheticizing his subjects he rejects their judgmental stance. In doing so he achieves something rare: conceptual photos that hint at the presence of a beating heart.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Richard Gilles “Towers” @ Axis Gallery through May 27, 2012.