David Maisel: The Expanded Field @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 large scale photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against almond colored walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 1989 and 2018. Physical sizes range from 29×29 to 48×48 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 10+2AP or 6+2AP, depending on size. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The announcement of a new gallery representation relationship is generally a moment of fresh starts and exciting new beginnings. And what typically follows, when the forward calendar eventually accommodates it, is a first show which introduces the artist and his or her work to the gallery’s audience. But there is always a simmer of tension that exists in this situation – should the first show simply be a tight edit of new work, or should it be more expansive, reaching back to provide a sampler of earlier projects?

San Francisco-based photographer David Maisel has recently joined the stable at Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York, and this show tries to have it both ways in terms of the question above – it delivers a handful of new works, and also offers a mini-survey of a few of Maisel’s previous projects and notable images which are mixed into the flow. But this straddle feels overly easy, missing the chance to dig into Maisel’s newest project with more depth and attention, and failing to give us the broader sweep of his busy 30-year career. In trying to do everything, the show doesn’t do quite enough.

Maisel’s new photographs come from a project titled Desolation Desert. The images were taken in 2018, just after Maisel was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and with that support, he was able to travel to Chile to make aerial photographs over a series of open pit copper mines operating in the Atacama Desert, the highest and driest desert on Earth. Several of the most striking images in this project were made at the Minera Centinela copper mine, where the color palette of the rocky hillsides strikingly runs from blue to white, with a few sandy intermediate stops.

Maisel’s photographs from above flatten the landscape into expressive abstract washes of blue that drift and fall with gestural grace. Access roads and pathways divide the spaces, creating bold lines in the compositions, but mostly the views feel altogether painterly, like active brushstrokes have been pulled across the land. In many ways, they are among the most eloquently textural pictures of industrial mines that Maisel has ever made.

That’s actually saying something, as Maisel has been at the task of aerial photography for more than three decades now. Early images, from back as far as the late 1980s, find Maisel documenting the disturbingly saturated colors of tailing ponds and runoffs, where eerie green fills a dark pool in Arizona and seething red surrounds Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. More recent images of croplands in Spain highlight the regular dotted patterns of tree farms and the squiggling worm-like trails of plowed fields, finding formal abstraction amid agricultural areas yellowed by the presence of borax in the soil.

While many of Maisel’s projects (not all of which involve aerial imagery) have darker undercurrents than might initially be recognizable, some of Maisel’s most powerfully ominous images come from his 2004 series Oblivion. In sooty black-and-white reversed tonalities, Maisel takes on the sprawl on Los Angeles, making aerial images that track the patterns of endless highways and subdivided communities. Images on view here look down on geometric highway interchanges and grasping black offramps, which then lead to neighborhoods of densely packed identical housing. His images make the city feel like a programmed organism, endlessly replicating into an urban hellscape.

While this quick, art-fair style survey of Maisel’s work hits the tops of the waves, there is a richness in his artistic career that isn’t entirely addressed here. His smart projects involving experiments with x-rays, the documentation of test sites for chemical and biological weapons, and his investigation of the corrosion covered canisters of cremated remains of patients from a psychiatric hospital are all omitted here, in favor of images that perhaps have more easy surface allure, and his early Black Maps series (also passed over here) seems like a place that might have made a good reference point for what has come later.

But galleries only have so many available walls, and trade offs must be made, so perhaps a mix of old and new has a logic that will appeal to many. The best news is that the new relationship with Houk should mean New Yorkers will have a more consistent view into Maisel’s output going forward. He’s already many many notable contributions to the history of aerial photography, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $12000 and $24000, generally based on size. Very few prints by Maisel have come into the secondary market in recent years, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim (here). Hardcover (20.2 × 28.9 cm), 152 pages, with 80 color illustrations. Includes texts by Stefanie Hessler, ... Read on.

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