West and West
Reimagining the Great Plains
Following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the subsequent public survey along the Sixth Principal Meridian, the Great Plains was officially opened to development and the surveyor's grid provided the basis for cataloguing the open expanse. Drawing on the remarkable history of 19th century survey photography, Joe Deal's new series of photographs, West and West, serves as a meditation on landscape and history, and their place in the realms of imagination and representation.
Robert Mann Gallery will exhibit a selection of photographs from this body of work, which continues Deal's keen observation of the forms and markers of built and natural landscapes. While West and West eschews the imagery of development for which Deal is best known, this project still connotes the impact of human-initiated processes by asking the viewer to think historically and consider what in a landscape has changed and also what has not changed. Focusing on the Great Plains also marks a return to the region where Deal grew up. West and West offered the opportunity to reconnect with what he calls "the dreamed landscape" of his childhood, now framed by the complicating knowledge of the history that shaped the land. In the introduction to the book of the same title, published in 2009 by the Center for American Places, Deal writes,
The act of making a photograph is not all that different from the act performed by the surveyors. Both are essentially visual; both impose a frame around something that has no clear boundaries of its own. In some respects, making these photographs was a kind of reenactment, a way of knowing what it must have been like to lay a straight line down over a vast plain. Only, in my case, and from my vantage point in time, the intention is to reimagine what lies beneath the grid. If the square, as employed in the surveys of public lands, could function like a telescope, framing smaller and smaller sections of the plains, it can also be used as a window, equilaterally divided by the horizon, that begins with a finite section of earth and sky and restores them in the imagination to the vastness that now can only exist as an idea: the landscape contained within the perfect symmetry of the square implies infinity.
West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains is Joe Deal's third solo exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery. Joe Deal: New Work was recently presented as a solo exhibition at the Museum of Art RISD, and travels to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona this summer. Deal is also included in the touring re-creation of the landmark exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. He is represented in numerous public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. Born in Topeka, Kansas in 1947, Joe Deal lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
It is not hard to see how the Great Plains might have driven early American pioneers to agoraphobic distraction. Photographer Joe Deal hails from this empty region, and after several decades cataloging the interaction of people and landscape, often in the farther American West, he has returned here for his new series West and West. At first glance these square-format black-and-white photographs, twenty-three of which were installed close together in one room of this exhibition, appear relatively characterless, their uniform horizon line encircling the space. But, like Hiroshi Sugimoto's ostensibly simple photographs of open seas, upon closer inspection Deal's images reveal a landscape full of incident. The land is threaded with streams, or is interrupted occasionally by a knotty rock formation. Small hills calve and fold. A random tree punctuates one scene like an exclamation mark.
Deal has compared the camera's imposition of a frame on this environment to the mechanical act performed by surveyors. Yet early rationalist grids — such as Thomas Jefferson's proposed division of the land west of the Appalachians, or the Kansas-Nebraska Act — caused speculators to disregard the landscape's variety. Deal's camera, by contrast, lovingly catalogs its diversity. The startling incongruity from picture to picture is highlighted by a trio of images hung close to one another in the show: Wash, Red Hills (2007), in which a shallow natural depression reveals stratified layers of rock; Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains (2005), in which thin clouds hover just above a featureless black expanse; and Flint Hills (2006), which is strewn with lunar-looking rocks. The tension Deal achieves between strict regularity and variety, between grid and ground, is in large measure the source of these photographs' power.
On another level, the minimalist compositions of West and West — each print is perfectly bisected by the horizon line — comment on what constitutes "landscape" to the human eye. A swipe of sky and swipe of ground: it's as simple a definition as an artist can deploy. That Deal may have such abstract questions of representation in mind is underscored by the pictures from another recent series, Karst and Pseudokarst, installed in a second room. In this project, which takes its name from the two often indistinguishable types of caves it depicts, Deal has chosen to shoot both from the inside and the outside of the caves, resulting in two very different types of prints. When he peers in, the allover compositions give the impression that the cave mouths, whether dusty and rocky or fringed with green, allow passage through the surface of the print, literalizing the cliché about representational pictures being a "window onto a world." Even more striking is the sensation, felt when looking at the images taken from within the caves' dark interiors, that one is positioned inside a camera lens as it admits the light of day. In these two series, Deal, an integral part of the New Topographics cohort, subtracts the signs of humankind's incursions into the "natural" landscape, which he is well known for recording. Yet he does not sacrifice the complexity of his meditations upon that landscape — upon not only the land itself, but also his particular means of representing it.
"Joe Deal: New Work" was presented at the RISD Museum of Art, Providence, September 4, 2009 - January 3, 2010. A version of the show is on view at Robert Mann Gallery, New York, until May 8, and will then travel to the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, June 5 - August 1, 2010. Deal's West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains is published by the Center for American Places.
The New Yorker
April 26, 2010
Deal, one of the influential New Topographics crew in the nineteen-seventies, continues to photograph the American landscape in his spare, understated style, balancing a sure sense of its history with a genuine concern for its future. The subject of his fine new exhibition is the Great Plains, seen in crisp black-and-white and from a discreet middle ground that recalls classic surveyors' views, with the horizon dividing the frame into land and sky. Like Sugimoto's seascapes, the resulting images suggest variations on a theme. But Deal isn't just recording weather and terrain — the gathering storm, the passing cloud, the sinkhole — he's making detailed portraits of the Plains that appreciate its complex personality. Through May 8.
Even as the New Topographics exhibition that made his name in 1975 is being reprised (at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through January 3, 2010), Joe Deal has released a new book, which is, quite literally, sublime. If Deal's aesthetic showed what happened when minimalism and commercial culture collided to revise the idealizing tradition of western landscape photography, his new book, West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains, shows this most invisible part of the American West in its full minimalist glory, reminding readers that land survives our ideas for its use. Deal's recent square-format, black-and-white images reinhabit the grid of the government surveys that laid out this arid region for settlement (a questionable idea, as time would tell) and grazing. A Kansas native, Deal writes with intelligence and insight about this depopulated, lunar landscape, evolving from the cool detachment of his youthful work:
If the square, as employed in the surveys of public lands, could function like a telescope, framing smaller and smaller sections of the plains, it can also be used as a window, equilaterally divided by the horizon, that begins with a finite section of earth and sky and restores them in the imagination to the vastness that now can only exist as an idea: the landscape contained within the perfect symmetry of the square implies infinity.
Deal recently retired from teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, and RISD's Museum of Art will be showing this new work — with an additional series not included in the book, Karst and Psuedokarst — through January 3, 2010.