by David M. Roth
Anthropologists say that to learn about a civilization, look at what it leaves behind. Photographer David Maisel, a one-time student of Emmet Gowin, adheres to that credo. Unlike anthropologists who analyze physical evidence on the ground, Maisel makes photographs of the Earth from airplanes, and the geochemical haloes he commits to film – residues of the industrial processes that fuel the human market economy – yield a strange, beguiling kind of forensic evidence. That evidence, seen in seven iconic pictures made between 1989 and 2013, forms a type of planetary autopsy: a portrait of humankind’s ravenous appetites and their consequences.
In essays written about Maisel, the word “sublime” crops up frequently; it’s an oft-invoked term that harks to 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who developed a vision of the natural world in which humans responded in one of two ways: awe or terror. Both, in Burke’s conception, were closely intertwined. He arrived at it when American technological know-how hadn’t begun to subjugate the frontier, so there was still plenty to fear from nature. Over time, that situation reversed. Now, thanks to greed, hubris and technology, nature is on the run, threatened by dangers more devastating than anything Burke could have imagined.
Which is where David Maisel comes in. Over the past four decades, he’s photographed some of the world’s worst scenes of environmental degradation: toxic dust clouds produced by the drainage of Owens Lake, garishly colored pools of effluent left by mining operations, and the aftermath of manufactured deserts. These pictures are as beautiful as they are terrifying: beautiful for their beyond-belief colors and hyperreal abstract shapes; terrifying because of the suppurating wounds pictured, byproducts of resource extraction of various kinds.
In this exhibition, two images, one of Owens Lake and another of a mine in Butte, Montana, stand out. Both make it appear as if the Earth’s molten innards were exposed and colorized. They co-mingle uneasily, like liquids of different viscosities, pushing toward the surface in the manner of geysers about to erupt. The other unforgettable photo is of a mine in Clifton, Arizona. In this, a lake of turquoise-gray effluent floods a valley, leaving mountain tops whose shapes resemble gargantuan philodendron leaves. Given the indeterminate elevation from which Maisel shot the picture, they could be five or 50 miles long; there’s no telling.
Images of this sort could easily elicit comparisons to abstract painting (Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, Gerhardt Richter), were it not for the fact that paint typically exhibits facture. Diebenkorn’s thick, muddy paintings from views he sketched while flying between Oregon and California in the early 1950s are some of the strongest examples and likely a precursor to Maisel’s efforts. But where Diebenkorn emphasized topography, Maisel does not. He flattens it, reducing it to colors and shapes, akin to what an artist’s palette might look like if scraped with a squeegee.
The absence of orienting physical markers forces us to navigate a moral quandary. On one side, there’s the prospect that Maisel is aestheticizing disaster, making subjective choices designed to titillate. On the other, there’s the pile-up of irrefutable facts, seen in jewel-like ponds of toxic algae, super-saturated scenes of chemical waste, jewel-toned grids of evaporation ponds, and sculptural gouges whose contours mimic geological processes that once played out across eons. Absent any physically orienting markers apart from the lurid horrors depicted, Maisel’s photos paint a picture of capitalism run amok, brutalizing the Earth at a scale so vast it can only be seen from the sky: proof of what happens when humans acquire powers once possessed only by nature and gods. Whether they’ll prompt the perpetrators (or their regulators) or their unwitting accomplices (consumers) to change course is another matter entirely.
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David Maisel: “Un/Earthed” @ Haines Gallery through January 6, 2024.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.