Laura McPhee at the MFA
Post #804 • June 6, 2006, 10:59 AM • 29 Comments
I see red flags when I see big photographs. By big, I mean big enough to mount a bathtub onto them. They've become a trendlet in contemporary art. I try to get past it, though, because I don't hold size against any other kind of work - I just have a little protective bias, formed from seeing too many big photos at art fairs that didn't justify their scale. (The photos, or the art fairs.) It will go away as I see more works that fill their wide edges with authority, and McPhee's exhibition at the MFA helped that process along.
McPhee spent two years photographing remote country in Idaho, and the exhibition, River of No Return, consists entirely of work from that series. For the most part, they deftly carry the baggage of the Hudson River School and Ansel Adams, and all the related aspirations to artistic grandeur via the Great American Landscape. The land is not unspoilt like the wilderness depicted by Thomas Cole, but it promises to maintain constant, utter indifference to human comfort, and thus its beauty has a similar edge of malevolence.
McPhee records explicit danger in the landscape, often to excellent dramatic effect. When these work, they convey the most originality out of the images as a whole, a striking combination of terror and loveliness.
The more banal interactions of man and landscape come off as environmentalist moralizing, largely because of the scale. McPhee states an intention to record dilemmas, not to offer solutions, but the weaker compositions don't elevate the dilemmas sufficiently to get larger sentiments going.
McPhee also did a portrait series of an Idahoan teenager with oversized hands and feet, like a puppy, and beautifully chiseled features. She appears posed with great meticulousness on the part of the photographer, and the series alternates between successful formal portraiture with an unusual rural angle in some shots, and self-conscious artiness in others.
The museum notes that McPhee shoots traditionally with an 8x10 view camera, hauling it and its tripod about the prairie, and that she eschews digital manipulation. That may end up mattering more to the artist than the viewer, but it reflects an obvious work ethic, and reinforces my perceptions that she scaled up these prints out of integrity, not mere ambition, and not by rote. In contrast to the way that Andreas Gursky sometimes seems to be just passing by his subject, McPhee is trying to enter it. When she succeeds, and she often does, she achieves a paradox: a large-scale act of intimacy.
Laura McPhee: River of No Return runs through September 17, 2006.