Jean-Marc Bustamante

at Donald Young, through April 28

By Fred Camper

Jean-Marc Bustamante’s huge color prints of Swiss landscapes–some nearly eight feet high–humble the viewer. The 9 (from a series of 12) on view at Donald Young are so precisely detailed, down to the tiniest pebble, they evoke pristine mountain air. Shot on eight-by-ten-inch negatives, each includes part of a lake and often trees, mountains, and tidy, well-kept buildings. But these are not postcard views: they lack a single center of attention. Instead Bustamante’s choices of subject and frame confront the viewer with a lush, multilevel surface. One thinks of the large, almost theatrical 19th-century American landscape paintings of Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt, which traveled from city to city as tourist attractions–though such works would probably not be principal reference points for Bustamante, a well-recognized French artist who also makes sculptures and installations.

L.P. X shows a lakeside road from above with a classical column at the water’s edge. In a conventional composition the column would be a stable resting place for the eye, but here it almost throws the picture off balance. Because the lake is indistinct, with no ripples and no reflections, it seems a limitless void, and because of the unusual overhead perspective and diagonals, one feels in some danger of falling in. Staring at the pillar gives a vertiginous sense of standing at the edge of the world.

Bustamante has said in an interview (available on-line) that he doesn’t believe in “the artist as deus ex machina.” Rather he wishes “to make the viewer become aware of his or her responsibility in what he or she is looking at. The work becomes the testimony of his or her own existence: ‘I look at it therefore I am.'” His photographs are not like snapshots, which are often simply organized around chance features of the landscape, but more like paintings meticulously composed around multiple focal points. The artist doesn’t impose meaning–the viewer discovers it in his wandering.

Despite Bustamante’s disclaimers, however, it seems to me that he does offer a subtle interpretation of what we see: these pictures seem to suggest little stories about nature. The composition of L.P. I, which shows a few houses and a church in the midground, emphasizes the weight of the mountains above: clouds shroud the upper reaches, and some sheer white cliffs reflected in the lake make the mountains’ presence even more pervasive. It feels as if the nearly vertical cliffs were pressing down on the image’s center, declaring their power to crush human creations. Below the houses, a small cemetery seems to suggest that the rock’s weight could flatten the buildings and their inhabitants into tombstones–an indication of nature’s ultimate power.

It’s hard not to see some humor in L.P. II, which frames a steam shovel’s green crane right next to a tree. The tree seems dominant: it’s a bit taller than the crane and casts leafy shadows on the construction shed beneath it. But most striking is the large foreground field of pebbles, scraggly grass, weeds, and little pools of water. Far more cluttered-looking than the lake or mountains behind, this interruption of ordered Swiss perfection reminds us that clearing the land for human use comes at a cost. At the same time the viewer starts to see the beauty in these details–Bustamante’s photographs are not environmentalist tracts.

Tiny details are what often take these pictures into an emotional, even visionary realm. L.P. IV offers a balance between the man-made rectilinear and the organic. It shows a construction site in the foreground, with a severe-looking building going up, and a traditional Alpine village across an inlet. To the right a large expanse of lake lies before distant hills. But the crucial detail is a single cable rising from some concrete blocks in the foreground to the sky, laying down a line that continues beyond the top of the frame, suggesting an almost frightening human dominance over the scene.

L.P. III is almost entirely given over to nature, but tree stumps reveal that the landscape has been disturbed. The seemingly chaotic tangle of small plants and seedlings that almost covers the stumps pulls us into the complex natural order of this new growth. A sliver of lake separates us from the mountains behind, and the white triangle of a sailboat is visible through some leaves. The pointed tip of the sail is obscured by a single downward-pointing leaf, a juxtaposition so precise it’s hard to believe it’s accidental, though it occupies only about 1 percent of the image. It seems Bustamante has found the precise moment when a leaf can dominate a sailboat–a moment he makes available, if not obvious, to any viewer.