The exhibition Topographies at Loock Gallery cannot be faulted for its sense of ambition. The name of the show, the press materials stress, is derived from the title of an epoch-defining exhibition of American photography, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape. The original exhibition featured eight American artists, including Nicholas Nixon, Henry Wessel and two Germans, the married couple, Bernd and Hilla Becher. The original New Topographics was concerned with a kind of demythologising, foregrounding photography’s observational, diaristic dimension instead of its heroic or “picturesque” aspects. The implied criticality of the form and the enduring legacies of the photographers who made up that exhibition have influenced the medium on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly half a century. And so what of the artists included in Topographies, Alex Soth, Ulrich Wüst and Natalia Stachon?
Possibly Wüst comes closest in approach to the aesthetic of the original New Topographers. Wüst depicts structures and landscapes that, in description, sound like a list of common nouns for a first year English as a Second Language class: houses, roads, trees, fields, restaurants. Wüst’s images cover the southern wall of the gallery and face a large, mournful drawing by Natalia Stachon of a section of a utility pole at night. Amid all this neutrality and objectivity, one could risk drifting into a kind of sentimentality or mawkishness. The good thing about Wüst’s works, however, is their sheer bloody-mindedness. There is little beatific in Wüst’s images of the quotidian. They are familiar, even boring, and the sheer relentless presence of these objects infuses them with a kind of lapidary transcendence. I will admit to finding Stachon’s works, luxuriously nocturnal though they may be, a bit too enraptured with their own emotional potential to actually live up to it, and, for my money at least, her neon sculpture, referencing the ostensibly mind-altering properties of William S. Burroughs’ prose could have been switched off and still provided the same level of illumination.
Alex Soth’s reputation is well-established, and his work can be divisive. The works at Loock are, in some instances, expressive of the Vice-magazine-ready qualities that Soth skeptics frequently decry, but there are moments in the second room of Loock, for instance, where Soth’s lens meanders through what appears to be a low-key trade show for psychics, that the weird, medieval tendencies that inform America glint with an almost blinding clarity. A man sits using the telephone to call the Psychic Friends Network as the fair buzzes around him. The flattening power of familiarity erases the magic of the telephone itself; truly important communication requires a connection to an altogether higher realm.
It would be rather pointless to actually compare the fairly modest—in scale and in radically—works of Topographies to the 1975 exhibition from which its title derives, and, yet, that is what the exhibition’s press materials explicitly ask the viewer to do. I don’t feel anything profitable can be gained by noting that there probably won’t be a specific Wikipedia entry about this exhibition in fifty years’ time, but that does not diminish the muted epiphanies that Wüst at his best and Soth at his bleakest can evoke. If this is a show about topographies, it is populated by more mesas than mountains, but it makes a strong argument that clarity of view can often reveal more to one than the majesty of a given postcard vista.
Until 20 December
Image: Alec Soth, Sharing Smoke. St. Paul, Minnesota, 1996
courtesy Loock Galerie; © Alec Soth