Flatlands

Two exhibits offer opposing views on photography

A man once asked Picasso why his paintings weren't more realistic. When Picasso inquired what a realistic image might look like, the man pulled out a photograph of his wife. "But," Picasso replied, "is she really so small and flat?"

Although we generally accept photographs as faithful reproductions of reality -- surveillance cameras and photo I.D.s would be meaningless otherwise -- they are, as Picasso pointed out, hardly accurate. Landscape photographs in particular are contradictory. On the one hand, they're transparent records of a specific place; on the other, they're subject to the limitations of the medium (such as the camera's one-eyed perspective) and the distortions of the photographer's aesthetic vision. Two current exhibits of landscape photography -- Larry Schwarm's eponymous show at Robert Koch and Rudy VanderLans' "13 Big Western Landscapes" at Gallery 16 -- deal with this tension in disparate ways.

Schwarm's lush color images of agricultural burns -- the planned fires that clear debris from fields after a harvest -- push the limits of documentary believability. By turns sublime and apocalyptic, they aspire to the artistic heights of painting, echoing both traditional landscapes and modern abstractions. By contrast, VanderLans' digitally printed black-and-white photos of the California desert are compositional clichés disrupted by an exaggerated halftone screen -- the pattern of thick or thin dots that make up any printed picture. (Take a magnifying glass to any image in this newspaper to see what I mean.) While Schwarm's photographs draw us into a rapturous, almost theatrical world, VanderLans' remind us that we're looking at nothing more than ink on paper. By exposing that mass printing process, VanderLans frustrates our desire to lose ourselves in the landscapes.

Furrows after sugar cane fire near Thibodaux, 
Louisiana, 2004.
Larry Schwarm
Furrows after sugar cane fire near Thibodaux, Louisiana, 2004.

Details

"Larry Schwarm" Through Feb. 25 at Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary (at Market), Fifth Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 421-0122 or visit www.k ochgallery.com.

"13 Big Western Landscapes" by Rudy VanderLans Through Feb. 17 at Gallery 16, 1616 16th St. (at Rhode Island), Third Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 626-7495 or visit www.gal lery16.com.

Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary (at Market), Fifth Floor, S.F.
Gallery 16, 1616 16th St. (at Rhode Island), Third Floor, S.F.

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Schwarm's are the type of grandiose images that VanderLans seeks to negate. In them, landscape becomes a majestic stage for existential battles. Line of fire east of Peyton Creek, Chase County, Kansas, for example, is a square bisected by an utterly flat horizon. The top half of the image is a brilliant cerulean blue, the bottom a deep, inky black. Dead center, where the two halves meet, a glowing orange squiggle winds its way down, like a volcanic fissure. It's heaven, Earth, and fire -- pure and elemental. In other photos, flares of hot white, red, and orange arc across velvety black grounds. Often, the only indication that we're looking at a landscape is a hint of grass texturing the shadows, or the stark, eerie tendrils of a lone tree caught in the glow. The images are so abstract that their long, descriptive titles -- Fire cresting hill along Bloody Creek Road, Chase County, Kansas is one -- seem designed to insist that these are images of real places and not some fantastic vision of hell.

Conversely, VanderLans uses inscrutable textbook titles like Fig. 79 and Fig. 146. Although his images are artfully composed, their subjects are much more mundane: a brush-covered hillside, a tangle of brambles, a row of telephone poles stretching toward a hazy mountain range. They are quintessential, slightly boring images of the desert no different from others reproduced in countless books and magazines.

This blandness allows VanderLans to play with the pictures' relationship to their sources. Unlike typical fine art photos, which are enlarged from film negatives, these are blown up from the pages of the artist's self-consciously titled volume, Pages From an Imaginary Book. By creating works of art from printed illustrations, VanderLans effectively reverses the relationship between original and reproduction: What is typically a "reproduction" (the image in the book) becomes the original, and the "original" (the work of art on the wall) becomes the reproduction. Confused? It's pretty esoteric stuff, especially since the book itself -- the show's Rosetta stone -- is entombed in a glass case where no one can really look at it.

But why landscape? VanderLans could play this game of chicken and egg with 13 big beach balls and the message would be the same. His choice of Western landscape taps into our impulse to idealize America's wide open spaces. (As a Dutch émigré, VanderLans has an outsider's perspective.) A collection of reproductions without originals, "13 Big Western Landscapes" subtly questions whether the land we mythologize lives up to the hype or is just a romantic notion perpetuated in endless carbon copies.

In contrast, Schwarm's landscapes are wonderful precisely because we can hardly believe they exist in the first place. Despite their fiery glory, they're images of farmland, and the flames aren't acts of God but of farmers preparing their fields for another growing season. What could be pastoral clouds in a 19th-century painting are actually plumes of smoke in Yellow smoke with black ash, Emporia, Kansas. In another image, what looks like an abstract Earth sculpture -- hard-edged, parallel rows of black earth receding into the distance -- are really furrows plowed for sugar cane. These are images of utilitarian agriculture, but they transcend their subject to form allegories of death and rebirth and to reference art history. Through Schwarm's camera lens, the back 40 becomes a vast, real-life work of art.

Meanwhile, by reducing landscape to its constituent dots of ink, VanderLans reminds us not to take photographs too seriously. It's an admirable agenda, but the results are somewhat monotonous. While it's fun to watch the dots coalesce into a recognizable scene as you back away and then dissolve again as you approach, the effect wears thin after a few trips. Schwarm's images may be more traditional (and certainly less self-reflexive), but they're also more beguiling. While it's certainly important to turn a critical eye on the media around us, sometimes it's more rewarding to dive in and accept the contradictions rather than to break them apart.

 
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