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ART REVIEWS : ‘West’ Challenges Ideas About Nature

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The landscape of the Western United States isn’t what it used to be, it’s not what we’d like it to be, and it’s not even what we thought it was. That a few centuries of conquest and civilization have transformed the land comes as no surprise. What is surprising about its vast natural panoramas is their slippery, chameleon-like character, their capacity to serve as evidence for divergent outlooks, even radically different visions.

“A View of the West 1870/1970" at Turner/Krull Gallery juxtaposes vintage photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan with contemporary ones by Robert Adams. Where mountains, forests, canyons and rivers fill the images framed by O’Sullivan’s camera, tire treads, tract homes, telephone poles, fences and litter intrude into Adams’ pictures of similar subjects.

Not all of Adams’ photographs include such direct references to human presence. Even the ones that depict uninhabited landscapes, however, remain distinct from O’Sullivan’s more magisterial images of nature’s dramatic power.

The 19th-Century photographer’s works tend to present the natural environment as a grand theater in which different vistas function simultaneously as actors and the stage upon which they perform. In O’Sullivan’s classically understated images, immense rock formations, sheer cliffs, plummeting canyons, and seemingly endless mountainsides covered with gigantic pines prevent the people-less scenes from ever feeling empty. A profound harmony between actor and action--or subject and object--accounts for the deep serenity of his works.

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O’Sullivan’s photographs seem to be singular views of a monumental expanse that dwarfs any individual who stands before it. Looking at his crisp, handsome pictures leads one to believe that what one sees continues well beyond the edges of the print.

Each of O’Sullivan’s photographs gives the impression that the vista depicted belongs to a world in which such beauty is abundant.

This balance and equilibrium is missing from the photographs of Adams. They seem, by contrast, almost claustrophobic. Although many depict landscapes unadorned with humanity’s unromantic detritus, their scale and composition create spaces that feel crowded and vulnerable, almost to the point of being choked out of existence.

Adams’ photographs belong to a world of diminished expectations. If O’Sullivan had a flair for the monumentally theatrical, Adams has a taste for the mundane. The former rendered space with aplomb, using breathtaking verticals to intensify the raw power of his depictions. Adams favors the horizontal, as if the landscape is asleep, unconscious or dead.

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In Adams’ photographs, the sky and the land seem to inhabit different worlds. A sharp, straight line usually divides one from the other. This compositional device suggests a reality in conflict with itself. In contrast to O’Sullivan’s attempt to draw the viewer’s eye into a photograph’s foreground, through its detailed middle ground, and toward the depths of its background--which smoothly merges with the sky--Adams’ almost fragmented spaces offer no such invitation. This distancing effect gives his images a modern restlessness and edge.

This concise and instructive exhibition persuasively argues that the greatest changes in the landscape have occurred in our minds and ideas.

A small show of photographic works by John Divola in Turner/Krull’s mezzanine gallery complements “A View of the West” by directly addressing the contradictions involved when nature is used as a palliative for the ills of urban society.

Titled “Occupied Landscapes,” Divola’s exhibition of works from 1987-88 contends that escape is impossible, that nature has vanished, and that all that remains are prepackaged, hardly satisfying excursions into its imitation.

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His “photo-objects” consist of images of single figures or small groups of people walking on paths, hiking among trees or exploring meadows and hillsides. The photographs are blurry, as if they have been reproduced too many times. They are severely cropped to eliminate any “artistic” effect, as if everything except neutral information is superfluous.

The insistent “unoriginality” of Divola’s images is meant to demonstrate that authentic experience does not exist, that the mass media have so successfully inundated us with fakes and representations that we can’t tell the difference between pure artifice and the real thing.

Divola’s images have been printed on photographic linen that has been wrapped, like a canvas, around stretcher bars usually used for paintings. His works have also been coated with a slick layer of polymer resin. These manipulations secure the images’ status as objects, as inert things that can be replaced and exchanged like any other commodity.

The blurry images resemble surveillance photographs, suggesting that something illicit is taking place. Their point of view is always from high above their subjects, enhancing the anonymity of the figures and emphasizing the distance from their all-seeing maker.

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One problem with Divola’s works is that they ignore the real complexities and contradictions of nature’s relationship to society. Rather than exploring the uses to which the landscape is put today, his art retreats to the academy.

Divola’s works recapitulate ideas already over-rehearsed in contemporary theory. Where the art of the so-called straight photographers forces us to catch up with its discoveries, his fashionably packaged “photo-conceptualism” settles for illustrating ideas already formulated in theory.

Turner/Krull Gallery, 9006 Melrose, Los Angeles, 213--271-1536, through Sept . 21, closed Sundays and Mondays.)


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