Consuming Nature

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through February 19

Midwest Photographers Project

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through February 14

Romantic art of the 18th and 19th centuries often aimed to inspire awe at nature. That goal is much less common today, but the seven photographers now at the Museum of Contemporary Photography–four in “Consuming Nature” and three in this installment of “Midwest Photographers Project”–do just that. Their subject is hardly ever unaltered nature, however, but the intersection of natural and man-made forms, and they balance the power of each against the other.

In “Consuming Nature,” Toshio Shibata is represented by photographs of dams and other structures in his native Japan and the United States. Making constructed walls and mounds of soil equally palpable, Kamikitayama Village, Nara Prefecture, 1990 shows on the right a huge dam with a strongly concave curvature, and on the left a huge, sloping wall of earth; the line where the two meet creates yet another curve. One can almost feel the monumental strength of the two elements as they press down, against each other, and against water. Otou Village, Wakayama Prefecture, 2000 shows an imposing cliff, covered with vegetation and many fractures, rising at the side of a road. A mesh covering apparently holds any fragments in place–yet once again the natural form seems to exert a tremendous force, which the breaks in the rock help articulate and the net seeks to contain.

What’s most amazing about Shibata’s photos is the way he refrains from making judgments: he holds natural objects and human interventions in perfect balance, often colliding but retaining their own qualities, their own beauty. His ultrasharp prints have a meditative quality: made from negatives taken with an eight-by-ten camera, they emphasize the variety of surface details, signaling acceptance of the world as it is. Shimogo Town, Fukushima Prefecture, 1990 shows a dark pool of water and a pile of rocks poking out of it. Strewn throughout the pool are what look like small concrete cubes, some with their tops parallel to the water’s surface, others skewed; many show waterlines. Though easily distinguishable from the rocks, the cubes are also scattered haphazardly, so the difference between the natural and man-made forms is less dramatic than one might imagine.

Paul J. Clark’s photographs of community gardens in “Midwest Photographers Project” achieve a similar balance. In Garden #43 (1999) Clark draws out the similarities between a grid of plastic mesh and the plants behind it: we notice small curves in each square and “buds” where the plastic strands cross. In Garden #11 (1998), leafless vines are intertwined on a fence, connecting the two more intimately than in Garden #43. Lying on the ground behind the fence are some empty boxes, as if rubbish grew on this land and the cardboard boxes were an interesting indigenous species. In Garden #90 (2003) fragments of dead plants cling to a dark roll of fencing whose dense web of lines creates forms as various and visually interesting as plants growing in a garden.

Like Shibata and Clark, Terry Evans creates studies of patterns–and her color views of prairies, also in “Midwest Photographers Project,” have a similarly meditative effect. She was a documentary photographer until 1978, when she had a “conversion experience” while photographing a small patch of prairie for a friend: looking at its rich diversity and complexity, she began to see the prairie as a metaphor for “the structure of the universe.” Her more recent aerial views of much larger sections of land seem filtered through that visionary moment: she presents plow lines and vegetation patterns as subjects worthy of close inspection, as mysteriously revelatory. There’s considerable variety in Saline County, Kansas, June 1999, which shows plowed furrows forming straight lines and complicated curves, but the way vegetation follows those lines creates a sense of harmony in variety.

Evans consistently frames her images to balance diversity and order. Indiana Sand Dunes, April 2001 shows a trail running along a ridge, with trees to the left and a steep drop-off to the right. The line of the trail provides clarity and focus even as it disrupts the clumps of vegetation amid sand, while a dark green tree at the upper left pulls the composition a bit off balance, as does the drop-off, suggesting nature’s unruliness. Terraced Plowing, Saline County, Kansas, September 1990 shows nine thick, dark lines that follow the contours of the land, revealed by highlights and shadows. Between the lines are numerous small furrows, running roughly but not exactly parallel to the larger ones, recalling fractal geometry: it seems that on closer inspection the viewer might see a multitude of even smaller structures, creating the sense that nature contains an infinite richness of detail.

Mark Ruwedel in “Consuming Nature” foregrounds the effects of time. Working in series, he records not only the effects of geological time on the terrain but changes wrought by different periods of civilization. Devils Canyon #5, 1998 shows a cliff-side blacktop curving off into the distance on the left, a dirt road in the ravine to the right, and a trail that’s presumably the oldest of the three just to the right of that. Each photo in his series “Westward the Course of Empire” shows what looks like a path headed straight into the distance. In Silver Peak #1 (1999) a straight path in dry, flat land leads toward a distant ridge. Central Pacific #18 (1994) shows a long, sandy mound stretching toward hills. The work’s title and some wood scraps to the side of the image offer a clue to the whole series: depicting abandoned rail lines, it reveals the impermanence of the civilization that saw itself as conquering the continent.

Ruwedel’s receding roads emphasize a Renaissance single-point perspective, creating the sort of commanding, even controlling view that more than one artist has identified with conquest. But it seems inadequate for representing nature: Evans found that her vision of the patch of prairie sensitized her to “images that have a structure not based on linear one-point perspective”–Persian miniatures, early cave paintings, Native American art. By identifying Renaissance perspective with the continent-spanning railroads but choosing abandoned rail lines, Ruwedel makes a statement akin to that of Thomas Cole in his “Course of Empire” series: five paintings that show the establishment and dissolution of civilization, as a classical city replaces wilderness, then falls to ruin. Ruwedel too seems to see equivalences rather than hierarchies–Native American trails and industrial roadways are both part of a continuum of changes to the land.

Tom Bamberger’s Red Grass (2003) is one of the few photos in “Midwest Photographers Project” that seems to contain no signs of human intervention. Its large, ultrawide format immerses the viewer in tall green grass: if you stand close enough to see details, the photo fills your peripheral vision and you feel pleasantly lost in a field. But its nearly perfect continuity begins to seem suspect–and in fact, though exact repetitions are hard to spot, the image has been digitally extended from a single negative. At a time when so much wilderness has been destroyed, Bamberger’s simulation of vastness is both ironic and optimistic: technology can’t really replace what’s been lost, but it can offer an engulfing image not unrelated to actual immersion in the natural world. By contrast Bamberger’s ultrawide Highway 80 (2003) focuses on the man-made: a road extends the whole width of the frame, accompanied by patterns of scrub that look suspiciously repetitious–perhaps making a humorous comment on the monotony of auto travel.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica.