David Benjamin Sherry, American Monuments @Salon 94 Bowery

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space downstairs and the entry/office area. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 2017 and 2019. All of the prints come in two sizes: roughly 91×73 or 51×41 inches, both in editions of 3+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Radius Books (here). (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: David Benjamin Sherry has made his artistic name bringing bright new energy to the genre of the classic photographic landscape. Aside from an inward looking interlude in 2017 which found him making darkroom-centric photograms and abstractions (reviewed here), his work across the last decade has consistently revolved around reimagining, and in a sense brashly reclaiming, the aesthetics of American grandeur. In 2012, he cropped his images of rocky deserts down, centering on the grittiness of sandy texture and the elegance of elemental lines (reviewed here); in 2014, he stepped back and addressed the dangers of climate change, using his signature candy-colored palette to give classic monumental views aggressive tints of seething ominousness and acidic vulnerability (reviewed here).

Sherry’s newest body of work, American Monuments, follows along quite directly from his climate change pictures, but with an alternate twist on the dangers that imperil the land. With an executive order in the summer of 2017, President Donald Trump kicked off a process to re-review all of the 27 national monuments created since the beginning of 1996. The report that followed called for the reduction of four monuments and management changes for six others, recommending that areas in several states (as well as in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans) be put up for sale, with the particular idea that they would then be available for oil drilling and coal/uranium mining. So, for the purposes of this project, the threat to the land isn’t wider climate change, but the specific policy changes that are already leading to privatization.

Sherry’s photographs (as seen in this show) take us to three sites: Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and Gold Butte in Nevada. There is no supporting information provided that directly communicates whether the particular vistas and landmarks Sherry has chosen are part of the areas that have been opened up for sale or not, so we are left uncertain about the potential vulnerability of all of them, even the most majestic rock towers and gracefully eroded plateaus.

The central dissonance in Sherry’s landscapes is rooted in our own expectations – we have been trained by landscape photographers going back to the 19th century, and most notably by Ansel Adams in the middle of the 20th century, that images of the American West should be brimming with romantic appreciation and reverential awe at that natural wonders that abound there. Sherry’s large format pictures meet that essential assumption and then abruptly upend it, their bright tints skewing (or queering) that overly-easy appreciation. While the nuances of Sherry’s tints leaned more toward pessimism in his climate change series, here the colors are largely buoyant and optimistic – even the reds, oranges, and yellows which could easily be read as warning signs, or the pinks and purples that could edge toward sickness, rarely do so, his choices seemingly wanting to reinforce the grandeur and emotional power of these places rather than undermine it.

What is most notable about these new photographs is their consistent increase in scale. While Sherry has made big pictures in the past, there are more of them here than ever before, and they hold the wall with much more authority. This is especially true of the towering rock formations in the Valley of the Gods (at Bear Ears), and the wide vistas and plateaus that stretch for miles (in various locations); even a relative close up of a prickly Joshua tree (at Gold Butte) fills the frame with muscular heft, the crisp bristling textures drawing us into the sun-soaked desert. He’s using this scale to emphatically remind us of the importance (and rarity) of these now-vulnerable natural treasures, and it largely works – Mitch Epstein has recently made pictures along a similar theme (reviewed here), also using large enveloping scale to make his point, but Sherry’s pictures (of some of the same places) are more compelling and memorable.

Amplifying the impact of landscapes that are already wholly impressive is a tricky artistic game, and one that could easily tilt into ridiculousness if not handled with care. The best of the works in this show avoid that trap and give predictable subjects a surprising jolt of freshness. Their unexpected colors and monumental size force us to look again, and that fleeting transition from passive to active engagement is just what Sherry is trying to elicit.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $18000 or $36000, based on size. Sherry’s work has begun to enter the secondary markets in the past few years, with prices at auction ranging between roughly $6000 and $15000.

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