Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Imprints: Photographs by Mark Ruwedel - Exhibition Review in The Boston Globe

Western exposure: Mark Ruwedel’s photographs capture time in a timeless landscape

Written by: Mark Feeney

The West haunts American photography as the South haunts American literature — if for opposite reasons. Lush and complicatedly peopled, the South is burdened with history. “The past is never dead,’’ William Faulkner wrote in words that are as much boast as warning. “It’s not even past.’’

The West, in contrast, could have been created with the camera in mind: stark and empty and bracingly new (terrifyingly new, too). The South may feel foreign to us, but the West looks alien. In documenting it, photographers from Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson in the 19th century to Ansel and Robert Adams in the 20th to Richard Misrach today have made it seem at least a little less alien.

Mark Ruwedel belongs in their company. His West is riotously austere and beautifully desolate: a Beckett landscape so empty of human life that even Beckett’s lost souls would feel out of place there. Yet one crucial aspect distinguishes Ruwedel’s work from that of his predecessors. As much archeology as art, his images explicitly remind us that the West has a past, one immensely longer in duration than the past of cowboys and Indians we see in westerns. “California is west of the West,’’ Theodore Roosevelt once said. The parts of Texas, Colorado, Utah, and California that Ruwedel photographs aren’t west of the West. They’re so desolate they almost seem underneath the West.

The 41 images in “Imprints: Photographs by Mark Ruwedel,’’ which runs at the Peabody Essex Museum through Jan. 1, can appear almost bare in their seeming emptiness. Ruwedel photographs traces of vanished life: fossilized dinosaur tracks, tribal migration paths, and the like. The camera, which arrests time in two dimensions, here records its having been arrested in three. The result is a folding together of three chronologies: geological, animal, and human. Most often, Ruwedel presents the tracks in the center of the image, perpendicular to the bottom. Seen that way, they seem to recede into both pictorial space and unrecorded time.

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