Visual Arts

The Toxic Sublime

It'll be 10 years this fall since the Smithsonian Institution turned down the lights on one of the most infamous art shows of the 1990s -- "The West As America," a cynical six-month exhibit that marked the art world's first awkward introduction to the notion of political correctness. The show's topic was the American West in art, and its approach was to gather the most masterful and most beautiful paintings ever to come from the American frontier -- and then utterly debase them. One classic work of Western Americana after another was ravaged by the show's ruthless agenda, dissected by snarky wall text and the curators' liberal reinterpretations, while tourists in Bermuda shorts -- more interested in Fonzie's jacket and Archie Bunker's chair -- looked on in confused horror.

Before their eyes, cowboy-and-Indian scenes were lambasted as racist propaganda. Sentimental portraits of Native Americans were written off as the fantasies of bigots with paintbrushes. Even lush, luminous landscape paintings were dismissed as mere foppery, just more evidence of how white people treat the earth like an attraction -- something to be tarted up, shown off and, ultimately, consumed. The exhibition proved itself to be the most brutal act of PC thuggery the nation had ever seen. It also turned out to be one of the smartest shows of the decade.

Today, it seems fitting that the anniversary of that show's close should fall during the run of "The Altered Landscape" -- a display of environmental photography now on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Both exhibitions set their sights on the treatment of the American West; both rely heavily on commentary as well as on images themselves; and both make no bones about the fact that Americans have decimated -- in spirit as well as in substance -- what was once the wild frontier. But if anything, "The Altered Landscape" is a lesson in the value of subtlety. What could easily have been another ham-handed harangue about man's impact on the land instead turns out to be crafty, elegant and pragmatic. While still making plain where its political aims are placed, "The Altered Landscape" allows for the argument that the degradation of the environment can be at once horrific and sublime.

That's a pretty difficult balance to strike. But over the course of several dozen images -- ranging from stark black-and-whites to lavishly doctored color prints -- the show runs a seamless gamut from the vitriolic to the bittersweet.

The vitriol -- as is always the case -- is easy to spot. Longtime enviro-photographer Wanda Hammerbeck, for instance, doesn't mind using text to give her photos a heaping dose of irony; her image of a gutted Chevrolet sitting awash in a Southwestern river is emblazoned in bold letters with the title The Ephemeral Quality of Human Achievement. The work of Sharon Stewart, meanwhile, proves to be as much commentary as it is documentary. Both samples from her tellingly titled series, A Toxic Tour of Texas, are straight and unartful photos of chemical plant sites -- one of a seeping drainage ditch outside a Union Carbide plant, the other of an abandoned home that's been bought up by a nearby factory. But below both pictures are blocks of quotes, from activists, government officials, industry flacks, that are almost as big as the images themselves, and the edge these quips add are as subtle as a shiv in the ribs. "The [Texas Water Commission] is charged to prevent pollution," one federal agent says, beneath the image of a dripping pipeline. "They do not prevent pollution, they permit pollution."

Of course, it'd be disappointing not to find indignation like this in a show that claims to take an environmentalist aim. But by and large, the most striking images in "The Altered Landscape" are also the most understated. They are the ones that depict the disfigurement of the Western landscape with such chill detachment, such surgical severance, that indifference is impossible. Take the grotesque tableau handed to us by Richard Misrach in his giant color photo Dead Animals #1. He takes us close to the edge of an earthen pit just east of Reno, Nevada, where dead livestock have been dumped, along with empty boxes, rusted drum barrels and other detritus of human life. Piled among the trash, the bloated carcasses of cows, goats and dogs stare up with empty sockets, some half-buried in soil, others stiff with rigor mortis, others still so thoughtlessly handled that their bodies have literally snapped in the center and folded over like prayer books. It's a scene that's just saturated with passivity -- no sign of irony, agenda or even artfulness. It's as if Misrach is taunting us with his apathy.

But he's not the only one. The artists here have found many matters of fact that, in themselves, are enough to provoke emotion -- whether it's outrage, guilt, embarrassment or disgrace. In his pairing of before-and-after photos from New Mexico's Carrizo Canyon, Lawrence McFarland impassively records the poaching of centuries-old Navajo rock art. Robert Dawson is similarly frank in his shots of fluffy, caustic chemical foam floating down a river on the Mexican border. And in a simple, masterful study in black and white, the Valley's own point man of environmental photography, Mark Klett, strikes a grace note of emotion with Bullet Riddled Saguaro Near Fountain Hills. In it, the pockmarked skeleton of a cactus stands sentinel on a desert plain just outside of town, parts of its limbs, belly and head having been blown away with shotgun blasts. Standing there victimized and alone, almost crosslike in shape, it's one of the keenest expressions of shame in the show: This saguaro, it seems to say, died for your sins.

But ultimately what redeems this show -- and, by extension, us Westerners in the audience -- is that even the most drastic impacts we've had on the land can sometimes carry with them an undeniable, if unintentional, beauty. While there's plenty of outrage registered in this show, you don't have to look too hard to find an acknowledgment that -- if approached with the right combination of distance and resignation -- even the toxic can appear sublime. Ed Burtynsky seems to advance this theory in his photo Nickel Tailings # 31, in which a river of mining run-off glows with an almost heavenly shade of orange across a black swath of earth. In the same way, Richard Misrach's Desert Fire #249 takes a distant view of a wildfire running roughshod over a prairie -- a view so distant that the radiant flames seem not just gorgeous but practically painterly. From there, the list goes on and on: There's the aerial photo of farmland in Washington, the tracks of rolling irrigators etching fine, hairlike curlicues in the soil; there's the far-away shot of hay bales in a Nebraska field, spaced evenly on the blank plain as if in a Zen garden; there are the sumptuous lines formed by a highway being carved out of the soft tablelands of the Nevada desert. It's enough to make you think that, even after a century and a half of being plundered, gutted and plowed, the American West is almost all right.

In the end, that's what you come away with when you leave "The Altered Landscape." In addition to the regret and indignation that these photos arouse, there's also a sense of tolerance among them, a reluctant kind of acceptance about the mark we're making on the land. Which just goes to show how much has changed in the 10 years since the Smithsonian bullied us around with its impressions of the West. We are now free to be ambivalent as well as angry, and that makes new images possible that are wonderfully subtle. Remember that when you're standing before the scene laid out in Timothy Hearsum's Bagdad, California: A tall palm and a town sign stand alongside railroad tracks, and a train is roaring by so fast it's almost hard to see. It slips past the lens so quickly that the windows of the train allow you to see clear through to the other side, where desert continues to expand beyond the tracks, uninterrupted, as if the train were not there at all. It's a sentiment that's hinted at, whispered and sometimes screamed throughout this show -- if it looks like we're not really leaving our mark on the landscape, it's just an illusion. We are. And it's not without its horrible beauty.

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Blake de Pastino
Contact: Blake de Pastino