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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

August 26, 1998. All rights reserved.

Wild, Wild Photo West

The American West as a mythic land of opportunity,

exploitation, and struggle — both physical and moral — holds

sway as an abiding cultural cliche. At the Art Museum, Princeton

University,

Toby Jurovics, associate curator of photography, opens his current

group show, "The West," with a view of Las Trampas, New

Mexico,

as seen through the windshield of Levi Lovato’s 1972 Chevy Monte

Carlo.

Alex Harris’ color photograph "Las Trampas, New Mexico"

immediately

strikes us emblematic of the clash of desire that is the West. From

the moment Europeans turned their sights westward, transportation

represented the key to conquest. Looking out from Lovato’s Chevy,

we see a hand-plastered adobe church built by 17th-century Spanish

settlers that is also an international tourist magnet. And we also

enjoy the view of a the car’s extravagantly vinyl-quilted dash

complete

with its own wildlife population — a furry turquoise dog that

dangles from the rearview mirror.

"The West," an exhibition of 20 prints by 15 artists,

representing

museum purchases made over a five-year period, offers a marvelous

vacation of the imagination from the hot and humid environs of New

Jersey to the fabled "wide open spaces" that are the American

West. The show explores the powerful myth of the West, looking back

at its history, and forward at the continuing power of its

iconography.

That the resulting dialogue is so rich can be explained by the

university

art museum’s history of holdings in this area. Photographs of the

American West have long played a central role here, from the original

gift of hundreds of images by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Brett

Weston,

and Wynn Bullock, from the collection of David H. McAlpin (Class of

1920), to the extensive holdings in the Minor White Archive, to the

acquisition of work by some pivotal photographers of the 1970s,

including

trailblazers Robert Adams and Louis Baltz of the New Topographics

movements. Adopting a pose of objectivity, these latter artists turned

their black-and-white attention to the mundane realities of highways,

industrial parks, and tract housing of the vaunted West.

Now, Jurovics explains, the New Topographics has evolved

and worked itself back into the American lyrical pictorial tradition.

While the 19th-century Wagnerian landscape portraits of the West —

the fecund beauty and sublime vistas of Yellowstone and Yosemite

captured

by such photographers as Carleton Watkins — stirred the political

passions of an East-Coast based national legislature to create a

system

of the National Parks, so, too, their contemporary counterparts have

a political point to drive home. Today’s concerns revolve around

growing

population and limited resources, with water the most contested

resource

of the West.

One of the gallery’s long walls is devoted to six works by three

photographers,

all members of the Water in the West Project, a group that explores

the use of water and its scarcity across the vast empire that has

been developed in the arid lands west of the Missouri River. "If

you’re an artist, how do you effect change? How do you inspire

advocacy?"

asks Jurovics. The answer often comes in the form of cool, clear-eyed

views such as the three "president’s" dams — Hoover,

Roosevelt,

and Coolidge — depicted on this wall. Today the dams are Western

landmarks as well known as Old Faithful and Yosemite Valley. Nearby

is Len Jenshel’s view from inside a Best Western motel room in

Gardiner,

Montana, its stark interior bathed in a lurid orange light. Seen

within

the frame of the room’s aluminum window, is a miniature view of the

sweep of mountain, pine-covered foothills, and drylands beyond

Titles serve an important function here to bring an entire universe

of meaning to some understated Western views. Two color works by Wanda

Hammerbeck fuse mystery and purpose. Her twilight view of a quiet

waterway meandering across an immense Western landscape, with

visibility

extending perhaps 50 miles, carries on it the running title:

"Water

Delineating National Boundary." More stern, is one showing

plentiful,

rushing waters behind another monumental dam; not one to mince words,

this title, also emblazoned across the width of the photograph is

"Living Beyond the Resources." More forceful still is the

Coolidge dam diptych by Martin Stupich in which the slash that runs

down the center of his two-print collage seems to threaten the very

integrity of the massive structure.

Given the blue skies, dazzling light, and hard edges of the American

West, it is surprising to discover how much strong, evocative work

about the West is executed in black and white. "Color photography

didn’t find a place in museums until the late 1970s and early

’80s,"

says Jurovics, noting that a number of the artists represented in

the show work in both color and monochrome.

Two black-and-white images by Drex Brooks from his

"Sweet

Medicine" series thrill us with the esthetic pleasures of the

graphic tradition at the same time that they allow us to read a

history

into the terrain. In the Bear’s Paw Mountains, windswept grasses flank

a road to nowhere, each stroke discreet and alive as if individually

incised by the artist’s hand. In Powder River, we gain an elevated

perspective (are we up in a tree?) over a small river valley of

cottonwoods

and deciduous trees, and the lovely clustered hills of the ridge

beyond.

Titles, here, inform us that we’re looking at the quiet, overgrown

sites of 19th-century battles between American settlers and Native

Americans in Montana.

Revealing titles also color an exquisite landscape by Richard Misrach,

a highly-regarded artist who has established himself as a master of

the color and light of the western deserts. Here his subtle,

transparent

color — gradations of sulfurous yellows and an anemic sky blue

— is almost hypnotic. The work’s title, "Truck Remains and

Eagle’s Nest, Bravo 20," comes as a shock — informing us that

we’re admiring the awesome beauties of the Navy’s Bravo 20 bombing

range.

Also commanding the glories of color are Virginia Beahan and Laura

McFee (Princeton Class of 1980), two artists who have worked

collaboratively

over years, with series of works that include the volcanic landscapes

of Iceland, Italy, and Hawaii. The drama and saturated color of this

pair of prints — a windmill farm set against sand dunes and smoke,

and an artificial volcano tableau created for Las Vegas consumption

— are loaded with visual interest and biting irony.

Steve Fitch is another consummate colorist who knows how to conjure

a vivid sense of place. His amazing, highly estheticized images of

a ruined church and a ruined living room seem almost artificial in

their theatricality. Rather than a West unspoiled by human presence,

he records a harsh setting where people have tried — and failed

— to gain a foothold, a place where humans co-exists uneasily

— and temporarily — with the forces of nature. All that

remains

of the church is the spatial relationship of roof and wall to altar

and broken pews. His domestic interior records the cruel meeting of

a genteel flower-and-foliage wallpaper with the actual dead, dry

leaves

that litter the abandoned dwelling.

Working both in the tradition and the footsteps of 19th-century

expedition

photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, Mark Klett presents the West in black

and white as a spacious landscape inhabited by the lonesome

photographer,

represented in one picture by a traditional box camera on a tripod,

in another by the photographer’s feet, as he looks out across

Escalante

Canyon, resting after a long hike.

Peter De Lory, a former student of Minor White, thinks

of his triptychs as "short stories that draw on the mythology

and iconography our culture has brought to the landscape," says

Jurovics. His three-part "Observations Contained" offers three

cool, objective views of the harsh meeting of nature with cheap

aluminum

chairs, a slatted wooded sun porch, and the barbed wire along the

boundary of an Anasazi ruin. Although jarring, the contrasts ring

true to experience.

"While it may sadden us to realize that the ideal of an

unpopulated

wilderness is no longer tenable," says Jurovics, "one

recognizes

that these images have been made with a deep concern for the West

and the hope that they will inspire an affection and appreciation

for the land as well as a new sense of advocacy."

— Nicole Plett

The West: Recent Acquisitions of American Photography,

Art Museum, Princeton University, 609-258-3788. To September

6. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from

1 to 5 p.m. Tours every Saturday at 2 p.m. Free.


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