by Renny Pritikin
In his 2015 book The Oregon Trail, the journalist Rinker Buck describes how, almost 200 years ago, travelers could make their way west by following the broken wagons and machines their predecessors had discarded along the way. Richard Misrach’s current show, New Old Pictures New New Pictures, a selection of works made over the past 25 years – including many previously unseen or unpublished — contains several images that update that story.
Bonneville, in northwest Utah, just south of the Oregon Trail, was named after a French immigrant who explored that route in the 1830s. Its discovery enabled tens of thousands of emigrants to extend westward the self-proclaimed “manifest destiny” of the United States. Nineteenth-century Americans despoiled nature as they traveled, and Misrach discovers the same unthinking carelessness today.
In Nebulous Theorem II (1992) a sleek land-speed racer sits on the Bonneville Salt Flats, incongruously engulfed in a sea of white, while Covered Car, Bonneville Salt Flats (1992), with plastic flags surrounding an auto under a tarp, suggests a used car lot in anodyne wilderness, as if it, too, had been left behind. While we are emotionally engaged by the stunning natural beauty depicted in such photos, the artist is far more interested in showing the impact of human behavior on the planet, and as a consequence, a tacit political message always seems to lurk beneath the surface of even the most pristine scenes.
As the title implies, New Old Pictures New New Pictures divides into two parts: nine recent prints made from images shot as long ago as 1984, and another five from a new series titled Cargo. Most measure the same imposing size, five x seven feet, all in color. Misrach often uses an 8 x 10 view camera but for the latest series he employed a digital camera and a telephoto lens, so sensitive that in Cargo Ships (January 14, 2022 6:51am), shot from the San Francisco side of the Bay, looking east, individual trees can be easily seen, silhouetted against the Oakland hills. The enormity of his prints delivers the same enveloping quality as sitting in the front row of a movie theater.
The older images in the show seem to have been selected for formal characteristics, primarily the display of a distinct object at the center of the frame along with dollops of humor or pathos. Bandon Beach #1, Oregon Coast (2009), for example, shows a preposterously phallic rock pointing heavenward. Gas Station Signs (With Moth Trails), Texas (1991), a night scene, features a lone gas-price sign surrounded by a sea of inky blackness, a forlorn oasis of light. Bull Mural, Twentynine Palms, California (2001) pictures a life-sized bull at the center of a trompe l’oeil mural (by John Pugh) that also includes an artist asleep on a scaffold.
Outdoor sculpture figures prominently in other images. Misrach pays homage to Nancy Holt’s masterpiece in Nancy Holt Sun Tunnels # 1 (1988). In this, he places the middle of her concrete pipe sections at the center of the picture to form a perfect bullseye target bisected by the horizon. Heizer Column With Clouds shows an upside-down L-shaped sculpture in the middle of the frame, its pitch-black shadows communicating the desert’s unbearable heat, with a horizontally oriented bank of clouds spelling out an unknowable Morse code message.
Triceratops, Wheel Inn Truck Stop (For Steve Fitch) (1984) echoes Bull Mural by focusing on a painting of two dinosaurs on a wall in a desert truck stop; they’re bathed in a murky green fluorescent glow, looking as if they were situated in an algae-filled aquarium rather than on the wall of a truck stop. It’s the most abstract, least nature-oriented image of the group, one whose domination by highway signage brings to mind Ed Ruscha’s use of vernacular roadside text. Look closely and you’ll see another oddity: a small boulder mysteriously perched on the Wheel Inn’s roof.
Film Crew, Battleground Point (1999) feels like a transition to the Cargo series in that the horizon line, a sand dune, divides the picture in half with a lake reflecting a mirror image of the sky, dwarfing two people at the center, one of whom points a camera in our direction. This reoccurring device, particularly as it functions in the Cargo series, brings to mind what John Ford told the teenage Steven Spielberg: pay attention to the horizon line because it tells you what’s important. Misrach heeds that advice, nowhere more so than in his portraits of the Golden Gate, bathed in ever-shifting weather patterns. I was glad I was alone in the gallery because I gasped when I saw Cargo Ships (March 5, 2023, 6:39 am). The operatic goings on above the Bay at that moment involved white clouds dashing to and fro while wearing a charcoal grey hat of fog, the rising sun painting a thin silver line on the water with a merchant ship floating darkly at the center. The political implications – recall the supply chain disruptions during the pandemic – are there if you care to see them. Cargo Ships (November 26, 2021 4:38 pm) plots out a diamond-shaped spatial relationship between two freighters and two sailboats that mark the focal point of the image; the tiny multicolored containers piled on decks read like Chuck Close brush strokes at sea. Throughout the series, the changing texture and color of the water’s surface define a complex relationship with the East Bay coastline beneath the dawn and dusk colors spread across the firmament.
With more than two dozen books to his credit and many museum shows, starting with his inclusion in Mirrors and Windows at MoMa in 1978, Richard Misrach, 74, ranks as an American master. The ongoing appeal of his work rests with his assiduous attention to human artifacts set within seemingly endless permutations of land, sea and sky: markers of our mortal, time-bound activities.
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Richard Misrach: “New Old Pictures New New Pictures” @ Fraenkel Gallery through August 12, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal. His memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists, will be published this fall.