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David Maisel @ Haines

The Fall (Borox 2), 2013, C-print, 48 x 48”

Starting with the placement of cameras in hot-air balloons, photography, almost at its inception, revolutionized the way landscapes were seen.  It collapsed vast chunks of topography into two-dimensional pictures that provided bird’s eye views of the world.  Airplanes, at the beginning of the 20th century, helped photographers expand and refine those views, as did the flight-inspired art of the futurists.  Using the violent upheaval of perspective known as aeropittura, they created horizon-less abstract compositions glorifying all things technological.  Satellite imagery via Google Maps goes further, bringing us big pictures out of which we can extract, slice and dice the underlying data. None of which, apparently, has rendered camera-based aerial photography obsolete.

David Maisel, a one-time student of the pioneering aerial photographer Emmet Gowin, has been shooting pictures from planes and helicopters for the last 30 years. Like his contemporaries (Alex MacLean, Edward Burtynsky, Mishka Henner), Maisel uses the vastness of industrial landscapes to convey a kind of sublime horror. His previous work, collected as Black Maps, explored the impact of logging and mining: great plumes of toxic runoff gathered in disposal ponds, radiant and horrible. His new work, The Fall, is comparatively toned down. If Maps were open wounds, Fall represents the healed-over scars of age-old industry.  Shot near Toledo, Spain in 2013, the majority of the 11 prints on view show a kind of agricultural and industrial patchwork: irregular plots of land alternate between sandy white, earthy brown and ochre or silver gray. Often there are regularly planted olive groves that fill the plots with a seeming contradiction: organic industry. Unlike American agriculture, which tends to occur in large rectangular blocks, the Spanish land patterns seem twisted by history, generations of mixed use and winding roads. Though emblematic of heavy industrial use, the images, overall, have a pastoral quality, another contradiction.
The allusion to early 20th century painting is palpable – some of these pictures are cubist compositions, or at least proto-cubist.  The similarity to Cézanne in Provence at times is remarkable, given the difference in geography, perspective and medium. Maisel has composed these photographs with the intention of collapsing
The Fall (Borox 6) and The Fall (Borox 11), 2013, C-prints, 48 x 48" each
recognizable references into fields of color, texture and curve. The Fall (Borox 2) is, essentially, a geometric abstraction, with rounded-off tan and white rectangles that read more like a Braque still life than a landscape. One hundred years ago, Kazimir Malevich noted the relationship between aerial landscapes and abstraction; Maisel hones this notion to a fine point, reorienting land to reliably convey an alien beauty.
But to what end?  When he used images of poison runoff and gutted earth the idea that the land had been violated was undeniably present, despite the alchemic beauty of the compositions. With The Fall, the land is worn and mute; it’s beautiful, still, but without any obvious toxic threat.  The enervating effect of prolonged abuse is part of the point.  Images like The Fall (Vicalvaro 3) and The Fall (Vicalvaro 1) show failed housing

The Fall (Vicalvaro 3), 2013, C-print, 48 x 48"

developments returning to sand in Vicálvaro, a province of Madrid, upending the technology’s usual narrative of a steady march forward to reflect the reality of the Great Recession, which sent industries all over the globe reeling. The crumbling of the Vicalvaro foundations is evidence of the earth quietly reasserting itself; it’s echoed by the spread of olive trees in The Fall (Fuensalida 5).  Though planted in jarringly precise rows, the trees grow wildly, creating a highly varied pattern, suggesting that despite overwhelming force, we can’t always get nature to do what we want.  So beaten down are these landscapes that nature’s forces have about as much chance of prevailing as a sapling trying to emerge from a crack in a highway.

Maisel’s activism has always been low-key, and it remains so here. Beauty, as before, remains his cudgel, the weapon by which he goads us into recognizing that the time we have to reverse the technological/industrial forces we’ve unleashed is running short.   
David Maisel: “The Fall” @ Haines Gallery through March 12, 2016
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento. His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions.  He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in Sacramento, Melbourne and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.

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