Black Maps

Terrifying terrains of the American landscape

I’m fairly certain the students sitting quietly in the corners of WWU’s Western Gallery last Thursday weren’t there studying photographer David Maisel’s “Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime” when I stopped by to peruse the exhibit. The first tipoff was that the textbooks they were clutching on their laps had nothing at all to do with art, and everything to do with math.

That said, the gallery was blissfully quiet—a condition perfect for memorizing the many vagaries of the laws of calculus, and also for ruminating on how the photographer whose work was on display managed to turn manmade disasters into eerily eye-catching works of art.

“Black Maps,” which is presented in conjunction with the “Vanishing Ice” exhibit currently on display at Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building, also takes a closer look at the long-lasting effects humans have had on the environment.

Maisel’s large-scale images of impacted zones in the United States tackle topics such as mining and overpopulation, but do so in ways both subtle and, as mentioned in the exhibit’s subtitle, sublime.

“‘Black Maps’ leads the viewer on a hallucinatory journey through terrains that have been radically altered by environmental issues and transformed by human agency,” reads the press release for the exhibit. “Maisel’s aerial images of environmentally impacted zones frame the issues of contemporary landscape with equal measures of documentation and metaphor, beauty and despair.”
Some of the birds-eye views are realistic in nature. A handful of photos from both “The Mining Project” and “American Mines” series feature forays into what seems to be Middle Earth. Much as the rings in a tree denote how much time the plant has spent on the planet, the circular swirls of roads and craters delving ever-deeper into the Earth’s crust are an alarming reminder of what humans are willing to do to get to the elements they’re seeking.

Many of the photos, however, have pigments in various shades (blood-red, icy blue, burnt umber, etc.) that have been added by the artist, making them much more abstract, and giving beauty to what ultimately are horrific scenes of environmental destruction.

In regards to the two series of photos depicting the effects of mining—which the Environmental Protection Agency has asserted is our country’s largest source of toxic pollution—Maisel notes he’s not necessarily trying to be a harbinger of doom.

“These sites are contemplative gardens of our time,” he says, “places that offer the opportunity to reflect on who and what we are collectively as a society.”

In addition to the focus on mining, another series in the exhibit includes “The Lake Project,” which focuses on Owens Lake, a natural glacial lake drained at the end of the 20th century to supply water to Los Angeles that is now a desolate lakebed spewing carcinogenic dust clouds.

“Oblivion” is comprised of a trio of tonally reversed aerial views of Los Angeles. In the black-and-white photos, roads and freeways criss-cross like veins run amok, and crowded streets and suburbs make it clear that people are in control here, not nature.

Finally, “Terminal Mirage” focuses on a series of photos take near the Great Salt Lake. Depicting the area as a combination of natural wonder and manmade atrocities, viewers will be hard-pressed to figure out which colors point to naturally occurring organic matter and which are the after-effects of industry.

Despite its grim subject matter, “Black Maps”—much like “Vanishing Ice”—manages to deftly combine art and education. I hope the students who head to the Western Gallery for study breaks consider that, too.

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