The world as cornucopia, brimming over with minutiae of delight and yawning obscurity, has been a theme of art for millennia. The ancient mapmakers made fanciful projections of the planet's shape, William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, and so on, until, after the modern viewer first encountered eye-in-the-sky photographs, all that could be said is that space actually looks arbitrary, a pattern like any other.
"Oblivion," David Maisel's show, chiefly comprises seven moderate-size C-prints of the same name. Shot in 2004 by the artist craning out of a helicopter at 10,000 feet above the Los Angeles basin, the images are printed in negative and mounted deeper than their white frame edge, giving them a whited-out quality that communicates the title atmospherics. Three more photographs, named Surveillance (all 2006), offer flybys over what appear to be military bases or sites overlooked by the EPA in the desert east of L.A.
As you stand slightly agog before Maisel's bird's-eye views in grisaille or lab-test yellow hues, you will surely want to revisit Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (1970) with its dyspeptic tales of the open road. "Black maps" is how Maisel refers to these megalopolitan interference patterns, limned with bridges, freeway interchanges, buildings, parking lots, and even the odd puffing boat on an oil-slick sea. Such constituent parts of aerial surveillance, invisible to the grounded citizen, jam into such paradoxically orderly perspective that the edge impersonates a rhomboid. One thinks of Robert Smithson jogging a vertiginous path along his Spiral Jetty (1970), interposing his body as scale object, or even of the invisible, doomed artist perilously tracking Amarillo Ramp (1973) from the air, before, well, taking a nose dive.
By way of excursus, the very fact that such a complex history--encompassing Smithson, M.C. Escher, even, say, Timothy O'Sullivan's Canon de Chelle, New Mexico, 1873--is implied, even revered in Maisel's work, gives it a certain ambivalent, boding quality. Exactly how it will all end is what delivers a sense of once-upon-a-time to these wonderfully disquieting works, the swish of "just past" that marks out the double in art.
Maisel's aerial photography details surface wear and tear as so much dust or mold, capturing the playoff between forces of desiccation and of a double degradation, that of the natural, accretive kind, but also the no less degraded pattern formed by endless rows of Spanish-tiled condos somewhere out in the valley, snaked through with rhizome-shaped arteries. Still further out, way out yonder, is the beach or mineral reef of the San Gabriel Mountains. Keep in mind that a purposeless survey is a factual and visual oxymoron, a bizarre experiment in chaos not unlike the problem of a hundred monkeys striking typewriters eventually writing an English sentence.
Maisel formerly trained as an architect, so the widely held opinion that walls define space offers a clue as to why these vast overviews appear paradoxically small. The eye discriminates and fuzzes at the same time. From above, direction gets skewed as in a viewfinder, the loop-the-loop appears benign, remote as if one had laid tape over the folded-down edges of a Rubick's cube. Oblivion and surveillance are coupled not only because the second implies the first, but because, even as you transcend the all-seeing eye, a perceptible, albeit brief tear alludes to what went missing.
At the same time, the urge to laugh induced by some of these somber downsizings is somehow like Smithson's wit still floating aloft in the air--an eternal fracture line between here-I-am and nevermore. The occluded horizon line gives shape to the ineffable, indeed the historical sublime.
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|Title Annotation:||art exhibitions|
|Date:||May 1, 2007|
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