Chris Shaw, Horizon Icons

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Adad Books (here). Hardcover, 80 pages, with 58 black and white images, some with hand written titles/inscriptions. Includes a text by Alison Mosshart and a short afterword by the artist. In an edition of 500.  (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Chris Shaw’s recent photographs from Joshua Tree National Park smartly capture the borderline craziness lingering in the desert psyche. The classic motifs of the desert genre – sweeping sand dunes, majestic cacti silhouetted against the dying sunset, even wide expanses of rocky nothingness and scrub-covered sunbaked hardpan – they all tell part of the story of the rugged geography, but largely bypass its obsessive outsider psychology. At its core, a desert is altogether unforgiving, full of harsh emptiness that resists any attempts to tame it, and that implacable indifference can lead its itinerant visitors and stubborn inhabitants into dark places and unexpected dangers – no one is entirely welcome in the desert.

Shaw’s expressive early morning shots of the famous Joshua Tree vegetation tap into this roiling undercurrent of latent menace, turning the prickly plants and twisted trees into the stuff of hallucinations and nightmares. Following in the footsteps of Richard Misrach’s flash lit cacti from the 1970s, Shaw isolates looming branches and parched spiky protrusions, using blasts of light to pull them out of the surrounding shadows. The forms tower and intrude with seemingly threatening gestures, bending over like primal beasts roused from their nocturnal labors. Gangly bleached roots search for water like groping fingers, ordinary views become shadowy mirages tinged with strange howling desperation, and plants defend themselves from surprise attack with knife-edged swords.

Shaw’s photographic aesthetic is a mix of the raw and the improvisational. Brash contrasts of black and white give his pictures a sense of vibrant dissonance, while repeated blurs create the feeling of stalking motion, with an almost let’s-get-outta-here jumpiness. Negative inversions, flipped horizons, multiple exposures, and imperfectly casual chemical washes add to the up-close immediacy, as do Shaw’s random fingerprints decorating many of the edges and skies. And the image titles are often scrawled across the prints with thick black marker, the words drawn from snippets of stream of consciousness conversation and obtuse desert advice – “You can’t save your face and your ass at the same time”, “Taking the poison and expecting other people to die”, and “I’m here because I’m not all there” – the handwriting loose and messy like a diary.

All of this combines to create a haunting sense of uneasy foreboding – Shaw’s desert is strung out and extreme, just unbalanced enough to potentially cause some trouble. He’s done an admirable job of grafting ominous emotion onto a subject that wanted to be Ansel Adams picturesque, catching it off guard in the early morning and drawing out its creepy darker side. His silhouettes are steeped in rebellion and alienation, breaking down the distance between the subject and the viewer and undermining our notions of traditional landscape beauty. In seeing the desert with an intrusively personal sensibility, he’s found way to make it feel cracklingly engaging and alive.

Collector’s POV: Chris Shaw does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    As usual, another collectordaily review that makes me completely re-evaluate and reverse my initial dismissive first impression.

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