Reports from the front lines
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It's a particularly disillusioning time to take America's temperature, an assumption borne out by "This Land," the latest photography exhibition at Pier 24. A bracing reality check and tacit indictment of who we are and what we're becoming, the show is Pier 24's most cohesive effort to date. As has been the case with their previous exhibitions, this one is huge, with over 400 photographs occupying 16 galleries. That it doesn't feel overwhelming is largely due to the connective tissue of its overriding theme, the astute installation by Pier 24 director Chris McCall, and that the material is in this exceptional venue's sweet spot. Included are bodies of work by 18 photographers, some American, others not, who had their finger on the pulse of the country, and where it was headed, several years before we arrived at our current moment of national reckoning. Though the images are not overtly political, after viewing this unvarnished collective portrait of abandoned homes and shopping centers, booms gone bust; poor neighborhoods riddled with crime and police brutality, landscapes scarred by unchecked "progress" while the homeless sleep on the streets; and "do not enter" decrees at our borders, you might wonder why people still want so desperately to come here.
The answer to the aforementioned question, one supposes, is that in many cases, it's better than the alternative. "Border Cantos" (2013-15), excerpts from a collaboration between East Bay photographer Richard Misrach and Mexican-American experimental composer Guillermo Galindo, is a troubling report from the front lines of the fractious immigration debate.
After taking color pictures of personal belongings discarded along the U.S. Mexico border - some are assembled in a grid on view here - Misrach shipped the cast-offs to Galindo, who built ingenious musical sculptures from crushed bicycle parts and a battered chair, a tire, a ram's horn, a stray boot, and other detritus. Two of his works are positioned in the middle of a gallery rung with Misrach's images of attempted border walls.
A portion of one erected on a berm in Los Indios, Texas appears to float inches above the ground like a figment of the imagination, standing alone and unconnected to anything. A poignant image of yearning, frustration and perhaps thwarted hope depicts a crowded Tijuana beach separated from San Diego by a row a dark wood pilings. While others play in the sand, a man peers through the barrier to a Promised Land just out of reach. "Unlike that beacon of freedom the Statue of Liberty," writes Misrach, "the border wall is an anti-monument. Its message: 'Keep out.'"
Approximately a third of the show is rooted in "Postcards from America," a project funded by Pier 24 that sent photographers to communities in different parts of the country. Seven of the artists - Donovan Wylie, Alec Soth, Bruce Gilden, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jim Goldberg, An-My Lê and Paolo Pellegrin - are featured in the show. Pellegrin's "Heat of the Night" (2012-14), a group of stark, high-contrast black & white photographs, echoes the visual aesthetics of Norman Jewison's 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier for which the series is named. On the hunt in the witching hours, Pellegrin, who struggled in his role as detached observer, captured crime and arrests on the streets of Rochester, New York, and Liberty City, Miami, places where the volatile relationship between police and black residents hasn't markedly improved since the civil rights era. A harsh police searchlight shines on a detainee in a white T-shirt who has been stopped in his tracks, while a black man, his hands cuffed behind his back, sits on his porch railing, waiting. In a shocking vignette, a hard-to-look-at image prominently shows the hand of an officer pushing the face of an intoxicated, deaf and mute black man into the gutter.
Gilden contributes two outstanding, quite different bodies of work. He trolled Wall Street, Midwestern county fairs and the Republican Convention for "Citizen" (2013-17), an unfiltered, unflattering view of the way we look now, comprised of nearly 70 slightly distorted, large-scale, digital color portraits of faces. The project maps a swath of unglamorous humanity, bad skin and all, including a Nixon impersonator and Anthony Weiner. Many are street people and prematurely aged addicts or poor, regular folks from flyover country, representing the kind of ethnic mix sure to strike terror in the heart and lame mind of Laura Ingraham.
The American dream denied and gone to seed is the subject of Gilden's "Foreclosures" (2008-11), a carefully arranged suite of black & white pictures of abandoned houses on overgrown lots, empty swimming pools and junk-strewn, condemned properties, unloved, neglected and left for dead. From the ashes of failed aspiration, he constructs abstract, near-poetic, architectural compositions with images of rotting wood, boarded-up windows, collapsed roofs and the chaos of derailed lives. The dream went somewhere else, but evidently not to the shopping malls-turned-ghost-towns documented by Brian Ulrich in "Dark Stores" (2008-11). Permanently stilled escalators ferry no one to nowhere; vast vacant parking lots, overtaken by weeds, cry out for patrons; and once-thriving retail businesses are closed, destined never to return. The creepy deserted buildings, eerily devoid of life, photographed after dark or in murky dystopian light, could be habitués for the walking dead. Where have all the people gone? Annihilated by nuclear war or wiped out by a pandemic? Nope, they're shopping on laptops and smart phones.
"Street" (2011), a 61-minute video by British-born, New York-based painter and filmmaker James Nares, with a score by Thurston Moore, is a surreal out-of-time interlude in which people on the streets of an unnamed metropolis move through their hectic lives in the slowest of motion. The pace of distracted humanity is reduced to a crawl; the perspective is detached, as if the human race is under surveillance by aliens. "My intention was to give the dreamlike impression of people floating through a city frozen in time, caught Pompeii-like at a particular moment," wrote Nares. And we all know the fate that awaited the doomed souls who fled Mt. Vesuvius.
Admission is free and by appointment, which can be booked online.
Through March 31, 2019. www.pier24.org