Massimo Vitali, Disturbed Coastal Systems @Benrubi

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 large scale color photographs, framed in grey wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the side hallway. All of the works are digital chromogenic prints, made in 2016 and 2017. Each image is sized roughly 72×96 and is available in an edition of 6. The show also includes a selection of reviews pasted to the walls in a side room. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: During my recent visit to Massimo Vitali’s new show, I came to what I thought to be a wholly startling and ground breaking realization – Massimo Vitali really is a landscape photographer. For some, this lightning strike discovery will seem entirely obvious and almost ridiculous – of course Vitali is a landscape photographer, he has consistently been making large scale images of beaches, coastlines, and other natural forms for his entire career.

But from where I stood, at least until this recent show, Vitali has always primarily been a photographer of people, in particular of teeming crowds and the eccentricities of large groups. In my mind, his overstuffed, over bright beach/tourist scenes, seen from an elevated place of near omniscience, were entirely about attentively examining the topology of human behavior, each photograph a Breughel-like compendium of individual narratives collapsed into a singe frame. They showed us shifting ephemeral communities of people constantly in motion, where the tiny gestures of interaction, from sunbathing and sleeping to wading, watching, and conversation were all taking place simultaneously, against a backdrop of wide white sand or eroded rock. And while the settings have often been dramatic and beautiful in their own right, they were just that – settings upon which the actions Vitali was interested in were taking place. Even when the relative scales of the land and the accompanying humans have been wildly mismatched, turning the visitors into tiny ant specks on barren moonscapes, I have always felt like the people (and their insignificant follies) were still the main subject.

To push my personal recharacterization of the Italian artist further, perhaps Vitali is the most people-intensive landscape photographer of all time. Not satisfied with just a few small figures tucked away in a corner like the 19th century Romantic painters (the solitary souls placed there to remind us of the sublimity and grandeur of nature), Vitali has consistently embraced the decorative and participatory elements of people, in some cases with a quiet sense of absurdity. In the pictures on view here, he captures intimate beach blanket conversations, boldly expressive look-at-me dives, watchful parents, preening selfie takers, and even a few puzzled onlookers watching the artist himself, and nearly all of his pictures feature conflicting layers of seeing and body language, where subjects in the same image seemingly look in all directions, often right past each other.

But Vitali’s newest pictures seem to deliberately underplay this people-centricity a bit, reasserting the weighty primacy of the land and highlighting the impact humans have had upon it – if Vitali had been an American and working in the 1970s, we might even have lumped his new pictures in with the New Topographics. In nearly every vista on view in this show, he offers us a so-called “man-altered” landscape. Towering castle walls dominate the shoreline, wave-free swimming pools are carved into rocky outcrops near the crashing surf, concrete jetties extend into the water, and raised viewing platforms are built up from the beach, and in each case, the original natural beauty of the setting has been meaningfully transformed by the hard edges and straight lines of human construction. Even in the few images where there hasn’t been obvious intervention, the combination of nearby roads and years of human visits have made secluded coves more habitable for the masses and multitudes, the cliff wall striations eroded into perfect sunbathing spots. Vitali’s pictures are still undeniably teeming with dozens of individual human vignettes, but the pictures seem, at least to my eye, to be more overtly steering us toward the larger issues involved in making these natural wonders more hospitable to man. The small details of surfers, snorkelers, lost dogs, or brightly colored beach umbrellas are just icing on the proverbial cake.

The longer we spend looking at these images, the more profoundly strange they start to appear, particularly the swimming pool nested into the volcanic rocks of Iceland and the platform overlooking the water amid the craggy rock-strewn hills of Spain where the intrusions are more overt. Whether Vitali is intent on exposing the hubris of humans in transforming these imposing coastlines into playgrounds or simply documenting the changes that have occurred, the images have an undercurrent of uneasiness that gives them bite. These landscapes rebalance Vitali’s anthropological studies of human quirks, surfacing unspoken questions about our self-centered modifications of the land. Like the invasive species that we are, not only have we overrun the beaches and clogged up the pristine blue waters, we’ve taken to pouring concrete to make that invasion even easier.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at €40000 each. Vitali’s work has become more and more ubiquitous in the secondary markets in recent years; recent prices have ranged between roughly $5000 and $82000.

Read more about: Massimo Vitali, Benrubi Gallery

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Auction Preview: Postwar and Contemporary Photographs, September 28, 2017 @Sotheby’s

Auction Preview: Postwar and Contemporary Photographs, September 28, 2017 @Sotheby’s

While the “contemporary-only” photographs auction is a model that has been tried plenty of times before, Sotheby’s takes another shot at establishing the nascent category with its upcoming Postwar and Contemporary ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter