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Art review: Emmet Gowin at Marc Selwyn

July 22, 2010 |  6:45 pm

400.EG.514 Marc Selwyn’s presentation of photographs by Emmet Gowin is the kind of show that might easily escape the attention of spectacle-seeking gallery-goers fixated on the now and the next.  The pictures are not new (they date from between 1988-96); they’re not big (each image measures about 10 inches square); and they’re not loud or colorful (all are black and white, most are printed in slightly warm tones). What they are is relevant in a most enduring way, vast in scope and deeply resonant.

Gowin, now in his late 60s, is known primarily for two extensive bodies of work. One chronicles everyday poetry and mystery across the generations of his wife Edith’s family in Danville, Va. The photographs were shot in the 1960s and '70s, though Edith remains an abiding subject and vehicle of discovery. Gowin’s other chief fascination — and the focus of the Selwyn show — has been the natural landscape, as seen from above. 

An aerial perspective "changes and liberates your vision," Gowin said recently in an interview. The marks of human presence become more pronounced and legible, like drawings on the earth’s optically flattened plane.

A hairy loop made by off-road traffic on the pale shore of the Great Salt Lake brings to mind the lyrical scrawls of Cy Twombly. Tight switchback paths in another image resemble a giant ribcage, as envisioned by the ancient sculptors of the Nazca lines in Peru. A scattering of bomb craters on an otherwise barren expanse turns the Nevada Test Site into a lunar landscape. A dark shadow fills the basin of each crater, while its lip catches the light. The flattening effect of the overhead view makes a surreal scene even more so, as if a confetti of moons in different phases was strewn upon the land.

Gowin has recounted making a photograph from the perch of a backyard treehouse in the early ‘70s as a surprisingly seminal experience in terms of seeing the land anew. He takes an interest in what artists like Robert Smithson were doing in the environment at around that same time, but he favors earthworks with a lower case e — not designated art events but evidence of changes in the land over time, due especially to contamination, exploitation, abuse.

300.EG.158 An elliptical aeration pond at a water treatment facility in Arkansas appears from above like a circumscribed collection of specimens, a giant tray of disembodied breasts or eyeballs, each pale white round punctuated in the center with a darker nub. With its rows of repeated geometric forms, the image is a terrific example of Gowin’s eye for found minimalism. It’s also a fantastically uneasy evocation of the extremes that characterize his chosen sites: creepily toxic and unnatural while also strikingly beautiful, distilled and formally pure.

Pivot irrigation, with its disk-like agricultural plots, provides Gowin with some of his most elegant images. A 1995 photograph made from above a field in Kansas dispenses altogether with the suggestion of a horizon and presents a flat plane sliced abstractly, architectonically, into rings, wedges, circles and bands. The untoned print’s rich inky blacks and scraped grays feel lithographic in texture.

Ever since Nadar brought his camera up in a balloon in 1858, aerial photography has broadened our vision and changed our perspective—not only visually but socially, politically, scientifically — on the earth we inhabit. In recent years, David Maisel and Michael Light have also made extraordinary aerial work akin to Gowin’s in its concentration on our impact upon the land — the drawing, sculpting, tracing, and especially scarring marks of our presence and demands. Gowin has taught at Princeton for more than 30 years and been a profound influence in the field (Maisel being one of his indebted students). With the aerial work, he prints small but thinks huge, the images a perfect marriage between intimacy and intensity. Reductive, expansive, wise and questioning, these are not just photographs but tough, reverential little poems, compact philosophies and ethical inquiries, evidentiary documents and experiential reveries.

-- Leah Ollman

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 101, (323) 933-9911, through Aug. 14. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.marcselwynfineart.com

Images: Subsidence Craters, Looking East from Area 8, Nevada Test Site, 1996 (top) and Aeration Pond, Toxin water treatment facility, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1989. Courtesy of Marc Selwyn Fine Art.

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