Art review: Michael Light at Craig Krull Gallery
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Michael Light’s astonishing photographs of the American West, at Craig Krull, are neither fairy tales of untouched splendor nor horror stories of desecration. They are both at once — vast, aerial views of marvels and mistakes, often within the same frame. While the images could easily be enlisted to support any number of environmental causes, they are not arguments in themselves. They don’t clamor or plead. They show, as Light puts it, “What We Do,” as humans, as Americans.
That sounds like the neutral stance ascribed to the photographers crowded under the category of New Topographics a generation-plus ago, but their pictures weren’t neutral either. They could be snide and damning in their chronicle of industrial parks and generic suburbia, but they spoke in cool, controlled voices and left the heated frenzy of interpretation to take place in the privacy of each viewer’s mind.
Artists interpreting the landscape aren’t capable of neutrality and never have been. They can’t help but see through the eyes of our species and its needs. Just as we need something to project awe onto, we also need something to extract resources out of, and the earth has long served that double duty. When Timothy O’Sullivan photographed in the Western states in the late 1860s and 1870s, he was part of several government survey teams charged with providing pictorial proof of Western promise, the land’s geological splendors as well as its utility. His extraordinary images (and those by other survey photographers of the era) are the before to Light’s after.
The West has long been settled and used — in some places oversettled and used up. In place of O’Sullivan’s wagon train, the San Francisco-based Light shoots from helicopters and his own self-piloted plane. He photographs coal mines and motocross parks, oil derricks and natural gas fields, highways and trailer parks. His pictures hang individually and are also sequenced in large, stunning handmade books. Throughout, Light operates from a foundation of wonder and a hunger to better understand the intersection of nature and human nature.
There is drama in that collision, and Light’s pictures can be breathtaking in their sweep, their blunt exposure of what is. Patterns in the landscape emerge more graphically through the elevated perspective. Concentric rings spiral down into a Utah gold mine, creating a void answered by the uplift of the mountains beyond. Spindly palm trees spike the grid of an Arizona trailer park like frilly-topped toothpicks on a tray of stale canapes. Distance turns the tiny, dark derricks and pale pipes in an oil field into Twombly-esque squiggles and lines.
Light finesses a rich tonal palette out of the gap between black and white, and harnesses contrast (snow on dark earth, trees against pale ground, shadows in riven fields) to potent effect. He is equally eloquent as a colorist. A view into the excavated edge of the Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming looks like an effort to extract hue as much as fuel. The wedge cut into the wheat-gold plain shifts from gritty brown to ash gray and finally to cool black, a Heizer earthwork crossed with a Rothko meditation.
Three books on view, resting on modified tripods, each measure 36 by 44 inches when open. The photographs within, gorgeously printed edge-to-edge on velvety matte paper, feel enveloping, and our slightly elevated view of them echoes the photographer’s own perspective. Each is a spectacular essay on place in 16 to 21 images, a survey of terrestrial phenomena and the mark of the human hand upon them: dams, subdivisions, mine tailings, smelter stacks.
Light’s work is largely about what we consider ours, how we act on that assumption, and what the visual manifestations of those claims look like. An earlier project incorporated survey pictures of the moon, and another, photographs of nuclear detonations in Nevada and the Pacific. This recent work too seduces and troubles in shifting measure. It resists easy summation and rewards the deep, pensive look — both outward and inward.
– Leah Ollman
Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through May 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.craigkrullgallery.com. An additional book and several photographs are also on view by appointment through May 21 at the Archer School for Girls, (310) 873-7043.
Images: ‘Barney’s Canyon Gold Mine, Near Bingham Canyon, Looking South, UT,’ 2006 (top) and ‘Edge of the Black Thunder Coal Mine, 9% of American Supply, Wright, WY,’ 2007. Credit: Courtesy of Craig Krull Gallery.