The Photographs of Mark Ruwedel at Gallery Luisotti, May 22-August 14, 2010 –
The 20th Century evidenced an era of supersized ruins. Two epic wars, scores of civil conflicts, revolutions and fundamentalist jihads produced ruination on a scale never before experienced. The photographs, artwork, newsfilms and few extant ruins remain the crucial means of reminding successive generations of the irrationality that foments such destruction, but also of the constant examination necessary as antidote to devastation.
Ruination has fascinated artists since the Enlightenment and Romanticism perfected ruin gazing as an art form. The labyrinthine imagined prisons of Piranesi and his endless allee’s of crumbling Roman columns were, as Andreas Huyssen reminds us, simultaneous embodiments of the Enlightenment’s fixation on classical antiquity but also, important allegories of mutability that allowed Piranesi’s generation to slowly disentangle itself from classicism to embrace the freedom of modernity. In the nineteenth century obsessions with the sublime produced images of not only terrifying natural wonders such as raging waterfalls and icy peaks, but also painter Caspar David Friedrich’s Gothic dilapidations, surrounded with decomposing, rampant plant growth and solitary monks contemplating human impotence in the face of an infinite universe. American painter Thomas Cole followed with his painting cycle The Course of the Empire, a meditation on the frailties of civilization as evidenced by the vine covered fragments of ancient grand edifices. With its melancholic musings on mortality, Romanticism controlled the discourse on ruins well into the last century, fueled by the philosophy of Kant, who held that man’s unpleasant and terrifying encounters with the natural sublime, would, in its revelation of a human lack of control, bring us to recognize our limitations, thereby producing an uplifting psychic makeover. Likewise, thoughtfulness about the distant past positively engaged emotions to help contend with the perplexing and disturbing social changes that accompanied the rapid industrialization of the time.
Most experiences of ruination in the 18th and 19th centuries were of the Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias, variety– so distant that any threat or reminder of human pride could be neutralized in the assuring Kantian mode. What does it mean to view the ruins of one’s own civilization, to have no comforting millennia between oneself and the various agents of destruction? Should we serve the grand narrative of progress, removing, smoothing over, redesigning and reconstructing showpieces of Modernist utopianism as quickly as possible as the Germans did post World War II (that is now prompting a great deal of hindsight debate) and as Amreicans did after 9/11? Contemporary massive ruination like the Katrina wasted acres of New Orleans and the unemployment ravaged urban landscape of Detroit simply cannot be harmonized in the Romantic tradition. Nor, as the Germans are now learning, is a rapid polished makeover necessarily going to repair the damage to the collective psyche and make us forget. To designate an area of ruins with documentation preserving the damage done by the BP oil spill might do more to sustain full consciousness of the myths and facts that drive such catastrophe.
Photographers like Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky have been significantly documenting some of the most egregious recent environmental ruination in dramatic photographs of nuclear test sites and Third World industrial areas respectively. The superb artistry of their pictures, the terrible beauty, confronts the viewer with the unsolvable dilemma of aesthetics coexisting with suffering, pollution, and profiteering. It is perhaps the struggle therein that makes us act by rooting for beauty. That anxious truce between the depiction of environmental catastrophe and aesthetic pleasure was jump started in the early 1970’s by The New Topographers, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and Robert Adams who photographed the defilement of the American Western pristine landscape by rampant land speculation and urban development. The New West was the tabula rasa of wide open land, ideal for promoting the post war American Dream. Exposing the re-enactment of the fictions of Wagons Ho!, these photographers represented the mushrooming housing tracts, the open desert spaces crisscrossed with vehicle tracks, and the young families starting their lives in the new post-war America hellbent on erasing the effects of wartime shortages and grimy industrial cities.
Combining a photo documentary approach with an artistry rooted in the representations of the Romantic sublime landscape and the Minimalist/formalist aesthetics of the Seventies, the New Topographers seemed to ironically signal the dismantlement of the idealized western landscapes of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. While Adams and Weston maintained the fantasy of untouched Western wilderness, the New Topographers in turning their cameras on the collision of unrestrained industrial and residential growth and natural areas, began to pry open a dialogue concerning environmental degradation and to deconstruct the dominant Sierra Club, Ansel Adams influenced nature photograph. Any direct condemnation of the destruction of wilderness by such development was veiled in the New Topographers by their accent on the reductive abstract beauty of these sites: one has to look deliberately beyond the mesmerizing beauty of Robert Adams’s lovely abstract traceries made by dune buggies in formerly pristine sand dunes to realize an ecosystem is being ruined beyond repair. Rather shortsightedly criticized at the time as lacking the transparency we associate with photography that would allow for a head-on critique of such environmentally destructive exploitation, the New Topographers, unlike straight photojournalists, engaged a wide range of rich art historical references and multiple competing narratives, radical for the time. If somewhat conflicted or ambiguous, as the era was itself, The New Topographers’ depictions of suburban sprawl nevertheless offered many portentious signs that all was not right in paradise.
In his recent exhibition at Gallery Luisotti entitled Now It Is Dark, Los Angeles photographer Mark Ruwedel clearly establishes his affinity with The New Topographers’ scrutiny of the Western landscape, both in his studies of land development and in his use of exquisite hand made gold toned gelatin silver prints and silver chloride prints. Ruwedel’s earlier photographic works of abandoned railway paths throughout the West (a study spanning 20 years) recall the nineteenth century photography of William Henry Jackson and Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Ruwedel revealed the end of that historical, necessary phase of capitalism and its narrative in expanding the West, a sentiment that is updated in the newer series here. In these three distinct series, his camera focuses on abandoned homes in the Southern California exurban high desert locations of the Antelope and Imperial Valleys. The era that appeared boundlessly optimistic and plentiful in the previous New Topographers’ work of the 60’s and 70’s, here seems spent and utterly bankrupt.
All shot at twilight, evocative of Ansel Adams transcendent qualities of natural light but also metaphorical of waning and extinction, we see various singly portrayed uninhabited structures, many mid century homes, uncompleted or in various stages of decay. With the silhouettes of rugged, high mountains in the distant –that classic Western divide between “civilization” and the rugged outsider– the decaying structures are framed dead center, iconic portraits of generic American housing styles that pass as expressions of our individuality. Surrounding the variously wrecked or empty structures are dead and twisted leafless trees and shrubs, windblown detritus, tumbleweeds, decapitated palms, discarded mattresses, water heaters, junked cars, and torqued metal. Along with the peeling paint, missing shingles, bullet riddled cinderblock walls, boarded up windows and doors, and battered stucco, these eerie pictorial elements comprise a sort of foreboding “ghost town aesthetic” characteristic of Western mythology and its pervasive cinematic representations. The sense of mystery is heightened as well in small poignant portraits of single articles of clothing: strapless bras, boots, corsets, partially covered or filled with dust, slowly decomposing and being reclaimed by the earth. They remain only props or clues in resolving the whereabouts of the late residents.
One of the central questions here is whether Ruwedel is simply a neo-Romantic in his implications of the sublimity in human powerlessness over mortality and the destructive but inevitable forces of nature (and human nature), or whether he succeeds in raising more contemporary critical questions through his ruin gazing. The kind of humor and subtle wit felt in Antelope Valley #293 with its fading weathered plywood and corregated metal sheets neatly organized into strict geometries, but clearly hardscrabble and do-it-yourself, allows for both a parody of high modernist architecture–its purported “unity”– and Frank Gehry’s postmodern low materials and tipsy forms. It wards off an overdose of nostalgia and melancholia. At the core of these near post-apocalyptic photographs, however, is a serious consideration of the demise–a “darkening” –of the American Dream, here seen exposed, ripped apart, collapsing into chaos and disarray, e.g. a family’s belongings spill out of a stripped van like an animal’s entrails. Recognizing the Home Depot building materials, the bedding from the Mattress Store, and the late model van, we have little distance from the present. We imagine foreclosure, water shortages, nuclear and chemical pollution, or unemployment, as the reasons these homes lie in ruin, none of which are far from the current realities. The fragile desert land is blighted and trashed. A lack of specifics, though, moves us to the symbolic.
At a time of unprecedented environmental crisis, these unforgiving images force a reckoning with the notions of infinite plenitude, the pursuit of unfettered individual gratification and consumption, and its resulting waste as well as its human toll. Ruwedel, in situating our gaze on the unsettling present through this archive of failure, critically disrupts and undermines any lingering utopian myths or narratives of progress. We could dismiss these idle homes as just another soon-to-vanish part of “boom, bust, decay” cycles so crucial to the ethos of expanding global capitalism. Or we see them as a useful mnemonic for transgressing such narratives as the West as an endless supply of resources. By not obliterating, but preserving as Ruwedel has, the traces of the carnage, perhaps we can begin to contemplate what it might take to avoid being another century of supersized ruins.
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Constance Mallinson is a Los Angeles artist and critic who has exhibited nationally and internationally. She is a regular contributor of reviews to Art in America, Art,Ltd. and Xtra. Her last solo painting show at Pomona College Art Museum, Nature Morte, was reviewed in the Times Quotidian.