by Max Blue
The current solo exhibition of Amsterdam-based photographer Awoiska van der Molen is a highly personal exploration of nature, a showcase of stark and well-executed silver gelatin prints. Billed as a “previously unseen sequence,” STATUS combines old and new works. Varying in scale, but generally upwards of 46 x 55 inches, the 13 prints on view are bleak landscapes, haunted by the tension between the grandeur of the natural subject and the constraints imposed by the film negative. Only one image, #450-9, hints at the integration of a man-made object, and even that, the blurred pattern of a fence, is questionable. Separating the lens from the subject, it serves as a segue, linking viewers to the world beyond.
The photographs in STATUS resonate. Each print contains an almost full range of tonal values, calling to mind master landscape photographers like Ansel Adams. Take the technically perfect #491-16, for example. It brings to mind Adams as well as Edward Weston in its portrayal of a sinuous boulder. Several of van der Molen’s prints are almost completely submerged in deep black, as in a rock face protruding from the underbrush in #448-18, or the darkness of the forest in #367-5. Glimmering in these nearly monotone prints are a smattering of highlights, elucidating the depth of that darkness. Other prints come close to the opposite with nearly blown-out highlights. A good example is #311-16, in which fog swirling around a rock outcropping verges on glaring. However, the highlight at the top of the print is anchored by a seamless gradation into dark grey with notes of black at the bottom. Squint, and it becomes a perfect greyscale.
The artist’s meticulous attention to detail makes clear her reverence for, and intimacy with, these landscapes. Wall text reads, “van der Molen’s pictures are printed by hand in the dark room, continuing the intimate, laborious sequence of slow processes, creating a unique stillness that emanates from her work.” This notion of intimacy is compelling, but it does beg some questions. What is the nature of her connection? Is it to the landscape or to herself vis-à-vis nature? The ability to exist in harmony with it, as this artist clearly does, suggests a level comfort through which her own presence seems to disappear. An almost spiritual unity is evoked, an earnest devotion bordering on transcendence.
Conversely, that deep engagementhas an almost scientific bent, seen in the artist’s numerical titling. She labels the photographs as specimens, categorically entered into a system to which we are not privy. This practice underscores the neutralizing of nature conveyed by the photographs. It also divests them of location. That lack of specificity makes them more resolutely personal than they might otherwise appear, as presumably accessible outdoor spaces. Contrast that with Ansel Adams’ consistent naming of places. van der Molen, by withholding that information, prevents us from duplicating her experience beyond what her photographspermit us. They turn the exterior inward.
Her photos are places where vistas and introspection meet, places where detail and expanse seem to be at odds. It’s a friction has long been present in the artist’s work. Her first major group of landscape images is documented in a book called Sequester, a curious title for photos intended to convey the great outdoors. The artist describes her work as “penetrating the landscape.” The act of doing so opens a space for contemplation, setting up a dialogue between viewer and photograph that is as rich as the subject portrayed.
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Awoiska van der Molen: “STATUS” @ Casemore Kirkeby through July 14, 2018.
About the author:
Max Blue, a Northern-California native and life-long resident, is a writer of criticism, fiction and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. His writing has appeared in Art Practical and Digital America.