by Mark Van Proyen
There are 13 of Carleton Watkins’ “mammoth prints” on view in this provocative exhibition, these being albumen images executed in a soft sepia from 18 x 22-inch glass-plate negatives between the years of 1861 and 1881. These are, for the most part, faded and bleak pictures that now seem like exercises in stubborn resistance to the over-combed smoothness of digital photography, but that observation is just extreme hindsight that is in part prompted by seeing a new, anti-digital harshness emerging in the recent photography presented at the Whitney and Venice Biennials. More to the historical point of Watkins’ works is the fact that they hail from a time when the formalist and social documentary functions of photography had not yet differentiated themselves into antagonistic positions – they performed those functions simultaneously. They are also among the very earliest photographs to show clear signs of a self-conscious ambition to be works of art, although in fact, they were made as high-end tourist souveniers that were marketed to visitors in Watkins’ Montgomery Street studio, which happened to be strategically located very near to San Francisco’s two premier hotels to conveniently facilitate East Coast visitors’ interest in potential real estate investments in western lands. This notion of 19th-century American art in the service of real estate propaganda is not as far fetched as it might sound, especially in light of how paintings from the same era by Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt have been recently analyzed in relation their own patronage. But in the case of Watkins’ work, viewers could see the land without the aid of any idealizing varnish, and with that advantage, also see that it was actually as sublimely grand as they imagined it might be.
Five of the 13 images are vertically formatted, and three of these take the Yosemite Valley as their subjects, looking much less “arty” than later treatments of the same subject by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Watkins’s landscapes cut to the geological chase, showing the forceful collision of temperature, water and rock as remorseless primordial forces, sometimes accentuated by a powerful worm’s-eye view composition, as is the case of Upper Yosemite Falls, Eagle Point Trail (1878-1881). A similar compositional power is also achieved in another vertical work that finds drama in the Columbia River Gorge from 1867. The image looks up at high cliffs in a way that seems to foreshadow Clyfford Still’s paintings from eight decades later, but it also seems to hark back to the hidden yin-yang compositions of ancient Chinese paintings of the Yangtze River, minus their famously deceptive tranquility. Where that tranquility is absent in Watkins images, we instead find something more stark, rugged and indifferent, revealing a depopulated world of harsh natural forces. This revelation predates the poeticized stoicism of Robinson Jeffers’ doctrine of inhumanism, indicated by "a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of trans-human magnificence.” 1 Where we do see signs of human habitation in Watkins’ images, there is usually something weak and feeble about them, for example, in the horizontally composed centralize image of a forlorn Spanish-adobe style church located in a barren field titled Mission San Luis Rey (1877).
In general, we can say that Watkins' work provides us with a terse picturing of the early shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene eras, the latter term referring to a formerly “natural” world that has been remade in a human image. These terms signal a shift in thought away from historical metaphors in favor of geological ones, and as such they reveal a debt to George Kubler’s 1962 book The Shape of Time, a work so influential on Robert Smithson and for that reason, influential on the entire shift from Modernist to Post-Modernist art practices in its suggestion of how a post-anthropocene art might reflect an emerging post-anthropocene world. Of course, all of this geometaphoric grandeur just brings us back the 18th–century idea of the Sublime and it was Smithson who was the first to re-inscribe it onto post Abstract Expressionist art. Which brings us to the companion exhibition that is adjacent to the presentation of the Watkins photographs. Titled Another West, it is a selection of about 20 more or less contemporary photographs (or sets of photographs) by 12 artists, the earliest being a vertically stacked trio of Palm Trees photographed by Ed Ruscha in 1971. Each of these, printed in a square format, presents its subject as a centrally placed specimen, the only visible difference being the small, medium and large size of the otherwise identical palms, slyly showing the role that taxonomic theme and variation plays in the way that we now understand photographs.
Another West was curated by Richard Misrach, an artist who has had a longstanding relationship with the Fraenkel Gallery, and I am happy to report that it does not in any way fall into the trap of simply being a collection of works by the artist’s friends and imitators, something that is often the case when artists don the curatorial chapeau. On the contrary, Another West is nothing short of a brilliantly conceived elaboration on the way that we now see Watkins’ work and the entire history of photography that has unfolded since his time. In many cases, this is accomplished by revisiting the idea of the Sublime — not from the 18th century point of view of a cruel holocenic “nature,” but instead by following Smithson’s path into the hyper-real realm of the post-human. We may not be there yet (I think that we are), but all indicators are telling us that we are well on our way, and little is being done to alter that trajectory. Whether or not this imminent destiny is synonymous with oblivion is a hard call, but I have previously coined the term “cybercene” as a way of indicating it as the next fearful phase of pan-capitalist disdain for the human world, facilitated by an economy of computerized servo-mechanisms operating behind the compensatory mask of an everyday economy of narcissistic reward.
Smithson’s ideas are resonant throughout Another West. Take, for example, Meghann Riepenhoff’s stacked quartet of cyanotype prints which use satellite images of islands as their subjects. To the rich iridescent blue of the prints, Riepenhoff adds subtly colored algae and what looks to be powdered minerals, bringing the geological content of the work into the foreground. Nancy Holt (who was Smithson’s wife) is represented by a suite of 16 square- formatted images from a series that she did in 1972, while her husband was still alive and before she executed her famous earthwork (Sun Tunnels, 1973) memorializing his passing. The series is titled California Sun Signs, each being a snapshot capture of various outdoor signs using the word “sun” to invite potential patrons into the questionable warmth of whatever good or service the individual signs are selling. Another almost-square formatted work that references Smithson is Lewis DeSoto’s Ellipse/ Tide V.2, a recent digital reprint of a photograph taken in 1982. It shows a spiral form made via an extended exposure to firelight located at a gloomy twilit beach, a clear and elegant homage to Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.
Johnnie Chatman contributes seven images to Another West, all self-portraits taken in various deep wilderness locations notable for their grand and austere ruggedness. These stark black-and-white works are in no way selfies or anything close to them. Instead, they are silhouettes that are dwarfed by their natural surroundings. The largest of these works, Self-Portrait, Cascade Falls (2015), gives us a tiny silhouetted figure standing in front of a grand waterfall, looking like the pilgrim depicted in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog. The starkest of the black-and-white images is by An-My Lé and is titled Night Operations II (2013-14). It is an old-style gelatin silver print that has been exposed to laser light, making its evocation of a nocturnal landscape seem as if were being pelted by a dozen simultaneous bolts of lightning, or maybe incoming warheads being intercepted by particle beam weapons.
A very different kind of sublime landscape is powerfully revealed in two works by David Benjamin Sherry, by far the largest images seen in Another West. Each of these is inflected with stunning iridescent color, so much so that the viewer could be forgiven for thinking them to be lightboxes. In his View From Muley Point II, Bear’s Ears NationalMonument, Utah (2018), we are greeted by an aerial view of a canyon cut through an arid badlands landscape. It would look extraterrestrial even without the carefully calibrated saturation of magenta-pink, but with it, its dramatic otherworldliness is taken to another level. Another striking use of color in a large photograph can be found in Tabitha Soren’s 2018-2019 mélange of images derived from Pinterest images of California fires. Engulfed in the inferno, we see two palm trees flanking a
tall telephone pole in such a way to recall a crucifixion scene—all surrounded in an apocalyptic red-orange that seems straight out of a 15th-century depiction of hell.
The pairing of these exhibitions seems both intentional and timely, reminding us of the stands that art can take in response to changes to our world. They tell us that we may not be able to change it, but that we can — and should — pay close attention to the ways that the world is changing how we might propose to live in it.
# # #
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.
1. See Jeffers’ introduction to The Double Axe and Other Poems (New York: Liveright Press, 1977, ix). Jeffers goes on the write that “This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist. … It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy … it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty."