Sojourn Exposure

In the 20 years that Mark Klett has been making pictures of the American West, his photographs have come to symbolize its ongoing revision in the American mind. No longer an eternal paradise of opportunity and natural splendor, it has become a lesson in the rub between the two.

Take your pick: rivers or dams, desert or farms, trees or lumber, wilderness or development, let alone the prevailing question of natives or newcomers--these are our larger preoccupations with the West.

Yet Klett, who teaches at Arizona State University and is showing recent photographs from Portugal and Japan at the Lisa Sette Gallery, has intentionally kept his eye on the smaller ones--the human traces and ironies he has found under foot or just out of reach.

His West for the most part has been a place whose once-heady mix of ambition and Eden has been worn down to such day-to-day scenes as weathered debris in the desert, saguaros riddled with bullet holes, his own shadow at the edge of the frame, a car blurring past a snake at road's edge, or people doing nothing in particular in astonishing, sometimes manmade, settings--Lake Powell, for instance.

The revelation of Klett's work has been that landscape is a personal idea; it has less to do with pretty scenery than with what he thinks about, sees and experiences in considering the land.

This approach has struck a chord. He exhibits widely, in solo and group shows. His works sell well. He has received numerous grants, published a half-dozen or so books, and is represented in some of the world's topnotch collections.

It's an enviable position for any artist, and certainly a worthy argument against making a dramatic change.

Yet Klett's new work contains a shift worth seeing.
Because these aren't pictures of the West, they reveal what he sees in unfamiliar terrain.

The show's largest work, a wall-length composition of 40 separate images taken during a recent stay in Japan, offers insights into how Klett uses photography to make sense of the world.

Not surprisingly, the sense he makes is consistent wherever he goes. Like his images of the West, his black-and-white photographs from Portugal show the same preoccupation with the traces of man's interaction with the landscape.

The eternal effort to use and commemorate the use of the land is the quiet theme of "Damming the Douro"--which could almost pass for a shot overlooking Roosevelt Dam--or "Olive Trees," "Grapes for Port Wine," the beautiful "Wall made of stone slabs," or "Sandeman"--a wine-ad billboard featuring a distant, sinister-looking figure in a cloak and hat.

What raises Klett's message above the bumper sticker are the varied and subtle ways he conveys it. He avoids the didactic. And he has a deft eye for balancing the formal and narrative (how things look and what they mean). He also understands that, as we change the terrain, it changes us; it defines our outlook, our expectations, our sense of who we are and what we value.

As complete as they are individually, Klett's photographs are little more than clues to this larger meaning. Their effect is cumulative, building Klett's point of view by revealing what he has paid attention to.

Until recently, Klett has been comfortable concentrating that point of view into stand-alone images. But his composition "Nothing can be done," of 40 color and black-and-white pictures from Japan, exemplifies his curiosity about what can be said in a series of different, sometimes contrasting pictures.

Klett attributes the idea of presenting images that aren't necessarily important by themselves to Japanese Emaki scroll paintings.

"These were the horizontal scrolls that you would take out and look at at arm's length," he says. "But you could only see as much as you could uncurl at a time."

Like the rephotographic panoramas Klett made several years ago in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the scroll offered the whole in fragments, one frame at a time. Unlike the panoramas, the whole picture comes together only in the viewer's mind.

Those stated influences aside, the true god of fragmented thought is television. In Klett's Japanese travelogue, you have a sedated form of channel surfing or the storyboard for a television commercial, whose quick cuts between different images force you--whether you're aware of it or not--to engage in sudden shifts among seeing, remembering and comparing.

The difference is that the viewer controls the pace and direction of Klett's work. Though he conceived it to flow from left to right, there is nothing to keep the eye from roving, pausing, studying, or from returning to images already seen. So, bit by bit, experience becomes memory, and memory becomes the basis for seeing and comparing the new.

This reenactment of travel and tourism is no coincidence. Klett says he went to Japan partly to see a new landscape, and to clear the West and the kind of pictures he was expected to make of it out of his head. Success can turn artists into character actors confined to the work people expect of them.

Klett says, "I didn't really know what to expect or what I was going to produce in Japan. I actually toyed with the idea of not making pictures at all. But, obviously, I didn't stick with it." He decided instead to try to make a different kind of picture.

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