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Victoria Sambunaris.

Victoria Sambunaris

James Kelly Contemporary | Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Like Bernd and Hilla Becher, Victoria Sambunaris photographs at a slightly raised angle. The sky is almost always overcast, a hint of Mitteleuropa over plots of North American geology. She sights territories near Yellowstone National Park, like Menan Butte or Twin Falls, Idaho, or the Flaming Gorge Dam, Utah. She makes the frame uniform beforehand by choosing to shoot everything with a 5 x 7 camera, one to two shots per subject. The resulting C-prints are neither digitally manipulated nor cropped, but processed from film onto 39-by-55-inch paper precisely as they were taken. All untitled, the nine photographs in "A Space of Time" (through July 18) come appended with place names and sometimes a terse identifier of what can be called, loosely, the foreground ("Travertine," "Coalmine," etc.). The images begin collectively to impart a floating sensation, as if Sambunaris had composed, instead of a factual document, a threshold space between now, before and later.

All told, there's too much yellow and too little blue. Is that salt or snow? What looks like a river grinds along between a golf course with sand traps and a scenic overlook off a two-lane road. A coal mine has a nifty, futuristic train sized to pluck out coal slabs that it conveys around the encircling pit. Outlines of rivers or roads mark where an inland sea has receded. What we are left with is a topography drained of physicality, like trail maps or geometrical projections.

The odd syntactical problem of Sambunaris's formal art making concerns its suspension of time. Time shapes, evidently. But shape doesn't parse time, not at least until something like Emily Dickinson's "swelling of the Ground" rips apart the apparent stillness as if to declare that plate tectonics, unseen by us, is a living force. Some of these steam vents puffing ominously along may soon erupt--per a 600,000-year geological cycle--into live lava fields that other photographs in this series remember as posterior artifacts. In a sense, Sambunaris mixes Nicephore Niepce's originary "table servie" with the Bechers' gray blast furnace, reminding us that the photographic subject is always raised from the underworld.

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Sambunaris teaches photography in the architecture department at Yale, leaving one to suppose a certain interest in geological structure. Can the shape of landscape be articulated? The problem for Sambunaris, it seems, is that if art imposes a certain morphology on its subject, its execution is not a given at all. Snapshots can be boring--precisely, agreed the Bechers. But whereas their frames are devoid of people, Sambunaris instills hers with her own presence. The longer one looks, the more one detects a tradeoff between her experience of a particular latitude and a rigorous control of what passes through her lens.

This hedging between the decision to pursue a system for its own sake and the problem of "executing" a subject is a brave idea. It creates a feeling of dislocation, which is neither natural nor subjective, but temporal. The deathly cold of the coalmine, for instance, has less to do with visible ice and air than with the projection of a language-like stasis upon them. Everything is bald, deserted. Potash limes the ground. Untitled, Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah (2002) presents a long thin line of stationary train cars against a blinding desert backdrop. Only a few yellow strands of earth and road help to mitigate all this white-on-white, which threatens at any moment to fade to black. Take that, Emerson! Sambunaris seems to say. Paradise is lost. What now?
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Title Annotation:photography exhibit at James Kelly Contemporary
Author:Berkovitch, Ellen
Publication:ArtUS
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Words:594
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