|Joe Deal's photographs are receiving renewed critical attention along with the work of his colleagues —Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Nicholas Nixon and Stephen Shore — from the influential 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. They created a map of American culture by making documentary photographs that were, as curator William Jenkins explains, "anthropological rather than critical, scientific rather than artistic." The relevance of the New Topographics has only increased as the social, political, and environmental topographies of our society grow increasingly complex. Joe Deal: The Fault Zone & Other Work 1976-1986 will include examples from a decade of the artist's work, including images of suburban backyards, beach communities, the desert, and life on the San Andreas Fault Line.|
Following the success of the New Topographics, Joe Deal completed The Fault Zone, a portfolio documenting suburban life along the San Andreas Fault Line in Southern California. These austere and often abstract images convey the precarious balance between the natural and the man-made world. Deal's work is dense with contextual information that communicates this uneasy balance: the stark geometry of housing developments under construction; the tangled undergrowth of desert vegetation; intersecting lines of dirt roads and power cords; subdivided backyards; and people occupying themselves with the mundane chores of daily life. Through his camera, these simple things become more complicated; underlying the immediate subject matter is the irony of the population and construction boom in a fragile desert ecosystem with an active fault line. In keeping with the New Topographics, Deal reserves judgment, allowing the viewer to reach their own answers to the questions his images raise. Curator Anita V. Mozley states that Deal's "nominal subject is the landscape of earthquake country, but his essential subject is time — man's time and the earth's time."
Joe Deal was born in 1947 in Topeka, Kansas. He has served as Provost at the Rhode Island School of Design since 1999. Deal was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1983) and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1977, 1980). His work is included in numerous museums and collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles; and in the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester.
The mid-1970's saw a new generation of landscape photographers reject the romanticism of artists like Ansel Adams, Minor White and Edward Weston in favor of documentary, emotionally neutral views of human adaptation to nature. In 1975 New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, organized by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, put this movement on the map. Among those included were Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Joe Deal, the subject of this absorbing exhibition.
The show's main event is The Fault Zone, a series of 19 square black-and-white pictures of suburban homes, rocky hills, dirt roads, construction sites and other nondescript scenes, all taken from 1978 to 1980 along the San Andreas Fault Line in Southern California. Other works survey suburban backyards in Diamond Bar, California, and coastal communities like Laguna Beach and Malibu.
Though overtly possessed of a dry, quasi-scientific objectivity, in their tendency to focus on less than admirable instances of human industry, Mr. Deal's photographs are animated by moral and polemical urgencies. The Fault Zone in particular suggests that our feckless expansionism is bound to receive its ecological comeuppance one day, a new kind of Manifest Destiny.
Along with Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, and Lewis Baltz, Deal spent the nineteen-seventies practicing a distinct sort of landscape photography that combined a documentarian's clear-eyed sobriety with an artist's aesthetic discipline. In Deal's pictures, scrubby, exuberant brushland morphs into great tracts of riven dirt, stubbled with houses and prickly with fences. The images tell an ominous and chilling story about suburban sprawl in California. But there is a sly wit to the photos. The domesticated lawns — so well tamed that they look like carpets — are pockmarked with hardy little weeds. Deal depicts the destruction of the natural landscape but recognizes its indomitability as well.