Mark Ruwedel practices, quite compellingly, what might be called the photography of contact. Historians regard contact between native and colonizing cultures as equally decisive for both. For better or for worse, neither remains the same.
What Ruwedel has been photographing for the last dozen years is not the effect of encounter upon disparate cultures but the impact of human settlement, industry, belief and ambition upon the land — particularly the American and Canadian West. As in the case of human-to-human contact, this encounter has left both entities profoundly changed.
Recent work of Ruwedel's at Gallery Luisotti has a beautifully crisp clarity. He expresses his awe of natural wonders with a light touch, managing deftly to evoke the influence of the great 19th century Western landscape photographers and at the same time to invest the work with all of the complexity of a postindustrial, post-colonial consciousness. His photographs are more inventory than indictment.
They testify to a range of human impulses, from greed and disregard to intervention, respect and utopianism. He has photographed the remains of communes as well as abandoned salt works, pictographic markings on rock and industrial debris half-buried in sand.
Ruwedel, who now teaches in Long Beach after 20 years living in Canada, grounds the work in the understanding that both humanity and landscape are continually evolving forces, each changing on its own as well as in reaction to the other. The groups of images here all belong to a larger project that Ruwedel calls "The Ice Age." It's an exploration of the Great Basin area composed of Nevada, parts of California and Utah, which was dotted by lakes during the Pleistocene era.
Ruwedel shoots broad vistas that incorporate traces of the past, arid stretches once filled with water, and imprints left by former habitation. In a striking image of Palo Verde Mesa, sunlight bleaches the brush in the middle distance and mountains on the horizon. The flat, rocky plain of the foreground is drenched in shadow, but enough of a tonal range is preserved so a viewer can make out the faint V of a forked trail. Like many of the markings Ruwedel photographs, it has the subtle presence of an echo.
Ruwedel's descriptive captions help guide the eye toward these traces, identifying them as residual evidence of human presence. It would be easy without this help to miss, for instance, the significance in another picture of two spots of raw earth among rocks and shrubbery. Learning from Ruwedel's label that they are "sleeping circles" adds a layer of social meaning to a site already interesting for its abstract sculptural qualities. It's not surprising that Earthworks by artists like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer are also of particular interest to him.
Ruwedel photographs gentle markings like ancient trails and pictographs with the same straightforward transparency as he documents the more damning tracks left behind by weapons testing (in another body of work) and the ruins of obsolete industry. He keeps his own voice to a whisper, letting whatever romanticism or politics lies embedded in the subject to seep out on its own. The pictures are understated as a result, quiet but powerful, suffused with wisdom.
In several diptychs here, Ruwedel has shot from the mouth of a cave, looking out to marshes, mountains or dried lake beds beyond. In each, the edge of the rock or its shadow articulates a shelter, a viewing perch. Including that edge, making it a dynamic internal frame for the landscape, has the same effect as shooting that forked trail from the point where the paths converge. It positions us, as viewers, in a particular spot within these particular landscapes. Ruwedel puts us right where awareness is most profound, where the intimate intersects with the epic.
Gallery Luisotti, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-0043, through Nov. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
An overload of symbolism
Francesco Clemente has a long reputation as a sensualist, a visual poet of myth and metamorphosis. His work, among others, rode the wave of Neo-Expressionism that swept New York in the early 1980s, quenching an art world gone brittle from its embrace of Minimalism.
As tender and personal as Clemente's work can be, however, the emotion most evident in his new paintings is ambition. Clemente's mostly disappointing show at Gagosian Gallery includes large oils on linen, large mixed-media paintings on blue denim and even larger frescoes on plaster panels, as well as small watercolors. In spite of Clemente's impressive range and scale, his work is most potent when it's also most restrained.
A telling comparison can be found in the back gallery, where one of two huge denim self-portraits hangs opposite a row of watercolors. Clemente suffers a bad case of symbolism overload in the daunting "Liberation Self-Portrait" (169 inches by 174 inches). He surrounds his own generalized features with images of shackled hands, a heap of chains, two free-floating keys and a heart with a keyhole at its center.
In "Silence and Song," one of the modest-sized watercolors hanging opposite, Clemente stands one small silhouetted bird atop a cage holding another, larger bird, its head tilted back and its beak open. One is silent but free, the other seemingly crying out but silenced by captivity. In the watercolors, Clemente spins poignancy out of sheer color and lush lyricism. In his other paintings here, he works hard at significance, but the images feel weighed down by the effort.
Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Nov. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Unwrapping a gift of beauty
Simone Adels bases her new paintings at Angles Gallery on the patterns and creases of wrapping paper taken from gifts she's received. It's an inane premise for a body of work, a molehill of an idea that nevertheless yields some beautifully executed paintings.
The paintings have a suppressed buoyancy about them. They replicate the stripes and dots and other jaunty patterns common to wrapping paper but veil that vibrancy beneath a filmy layer of white. These images are meant to evoke the back side of the paper, not the colorful front, though bands of full-strength color appear occasionally, in areas that suggest the paper folded under.
Working on aluminum panels, in layers of acrylic "animation paint," Adels creates the illusion of paper crinkled and creased. The slick surfaces tease with their implications of texture and depth, but not to the extent that the eye is truly fooled. It's only engaged by the elaborate contrivance.
Throughout the show, Adels plays with the notion that painting and sculpture exist on the same continuum. A few overtly three-dimensional works are excessively coy, however — an unfolded cardboard box cast in blue rubber and titled "Painting," for instance, and a re-creation of her baby blanket made from those little round felt pads for protecting surfaces from scratches. These concepts all feel frail, but at least with the paintings, loveliness prevails.
Angles Gallery, 2230 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-5019, through Oct. 25. Closed Sunday and Monday.
A few notes on the Mideast, dating
Swedish artist Johan Thurfjell was an exchange student in L.A. when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took place. Out of the barrage of analysis since then, he (along with everyone else) has tried to make sense of the complex political, religious and cultural forces at play in the Middle East. At sixteen:one, Thurfjell's installation "An Attempt to Understand" takes a focused stab at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, cited by some as the catalyst for the attacks.
"Focus" is the operative word here, for what Thurfjell's smart though slight work illustrates is that focusing on any single aspect of the situation is impossible. Every element is like a tile in an immense mosaic, not comprehensible until you stand back to see the larger picture.
Thurfjell's project is a mosaic of 3-inch-square Post-it notes on which he has written discrete bits of information about the region. The notes are color-coded according to 15 sources (a Roman Catholic encyclopedia, an Arab Web site, an American-Israeli lobbying organization and so on), and the story they tell across two gallery walls extends from 12,000 BC to the present.
About two-thirds of the way through, Thurfjell's own voice crops up, on pink Post-its, to document his own chronology — his education, loves and losses, career milestones. There's a radical kind of leveling that happens here when exile, expulsion, revelations of God and genocide are given equal billing with the artist's dating history. As both history lesson and autobiography, the work is inevitably abbreviated and distorted, but bringing the narratives' multiple subjectivities to the surface seems to be Thurfjell's point.
It's a useful one, however obvious. The artist's first solo exhibition in the U.S. (curated by icespace) also features a few other works that scratch the surface where collective memory and popular culture intersect.
sixteen:one, 2116-B Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 450-4394, through Sunday. Open Friday through Sunday and by appointment.