Michael Ashkin, There will be two of you

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Fw:Books (here). Softcover, 240 x 280 mm, 128 pages, with 133 black-and-white reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The dynamic push and pull between beauty and ugliness has long been a draw for artists of all kinds, and for those living in and around New York City, the low-lying swamplands of northern New Jersey, particularly in an area called the Meadowlands, might provide a perfect example of this friction-filled duality. If you’ve driven up the New Jersey Turnpike toward the city, or headed over to a football game or concert at the stadium plopped down there, you’ve spent at least a bit of fleeting time in the Meadowlands.

Once a pristine marshland, throughout the early and mid 20th century the Meadowlands became an almost cliched symbol of environmental degradation, neglect, and outright abuse. Wide swaths of land were drained and turned into landfill, with roads and railways criss crossing the area, making stopping points at trucking distribution centers, chemical plants, oil refineries, garbage dumps, power plants, and other industrial sprawl. In more recent years, significant efforts have been made to clean up the mess and repair the polluted grimness, and in many cases, there is evidence of the Meadowlands healing itself, but the process is slow.

The Meadowlands are probably most famous for various swampland mentions in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, but photographically, Ray Mortenson is certainly one of the standard bearers for the region. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mortenson made a series of photographic landscapes (and mixed use industrialscapes) of the area and published a now classic photoboook with the same name, in a sense grafting some of the sensibilities of the New Topographics movement onto the New Jersey wetlands, but with more of an eye for understated beauty (as seen in a 2016 gallery show, reviewed here). Decades later, Mortensen returned to the area to make another round of landscapes, as well as close up plant and debris studies of intimately small scenes found there (reviewed here).

In the late 1990s, Michael Ashkin also took a crack at the Meadowlands as photographic subject, the project ultimately taking shape as a thin photobook titled Garden State. Ashkin was coming at the Meadowlands with a somewhat more sculptural eye than Mortenson’s, having experimented with tabletop models of similar industrial scenes before turning to photography. In the years that followed the publication of Garden State in 2000, Ashkin continued to wander through the Meadowlands with his camera, making panoramic photographs commissioned by Okwui Enwezor for an exhibit at Documenta 11 (in 2002). Askin’s recent photobook There will be two of you returns to those original black-and-white panoramas and re-imagines them in sequenced photobook form.

Ashkin’s photographs were originally displayed in a single massive grid of relatively small prints, in a sense forcing the viewer to take them all in at once, as one experience. In book form, the long thin format of the images is thoughtfully used to slow that viewing down with page turns, with the inherent geometry of the pictures used to drive the presentation. The particular size of the panoramas allows for three small prints on each side of the spread, the slots stacked vertically like Donald Judd boxes; all three slots are never filled with three images – mostly there are two photographs, but sometimes only one, with white space left to fill the blank slots. When the images are shown medium sized, they fill two slots on each side of the spread, crossing the gutter. And when the pictures are large, they fill three full pages – a full spread plus a page turn to the next full page (the light blue-tinted cover is also a version of this tri-fold). These geometries all fit together neatly and elegantly in alternate combinations, allowing the images to be shown in one of three sizes in lots of different configurations.

One of the first things to notice about Ashkin’s photographs is their vantage point – he’s always on foot, grounded within his surroundings, his camera slightly looking up to take in both the foreground and the universally grey sky in the distance. Ashkin’s essay reinforces this walking position, recounting the repeated experience of wandering through the Meadowlands with a friend and noticing tiny fleeting details that the two meandering companions might not have seen the same way. This sense of meditative, slow looking pervades Ashkin’s photographs – at first glance, their subject matter doesn’t seem to warrant his attention, but when we take a few breaths and look more patiently, it becomes clear how he has carefully arranged his compositions to help us see what he saw.

Ashkin’s sculptural background comes through strongly in his framing choices, to the point that each picture almost feels like an exercise in sculpture as photography. The long thin aspect ratio lends itself to horizontal layering, which Ashkin then interrupts with vertical intrusions of various kinds. Low scrubby dirt piles, long chain link fences, flat roofed industrial buildings and warehouses, chemical tanks, scraggly new growth treelines and clumps of sumac, railroad tracks, trestle bridges, lines of truck trailers, electrical power lines, expanses of vacant concrete, road dividers – they all serve to flatten and elongate the compositions. These hunkered down spatial dynamics are then punctuated by the verticality of telephone poles, electrical towers, jutting scrub, dead tree trunks, cargo cranes, smokestacks, and billboards, creating a push and pull in nearly every picture.

Of course, the legacy of the New Topographics photographers of the 1970s also lingers somewhere in these photographs, Ashkin’s hemmed in East Coast-ness different than the suburban sprawls of California and the West, but essentially similar in its underlying reaction to the environmental mismanagement and the excesses of American capitalism found in these kinds of places. Even more than the works of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and others, Ashkin’s photographs head for transitional zones of in between forgettability, his meticulous attention forcing us to look at landscapes we would avoid or intentionally overlook. He walks and we follow, seeing reflective puddles, junked cars, strewn debris, barbed wire, a few cinder blocks and sandbags, piles of tires, feeling the rhythms of vacant lots, undulating electrical wires, and the sweep of flatness that opens up between the buildings. What’s altogether surprising is how delicate many of these grubby scenes can be, with Ashkin lingering over the nothingness of tactile surfaces and textures, as in many of Jan Groover’s platinum print industrials.

Given a chance to dive into these individual panoramas more deeply (which the original installation seemed not to encourage), there are plenty of rich complexities to be found, even when the scenes seem almost subjectless in their mundanity. It’s the X spray painted on the telephone pole, the ragged see-through hole in the back of a truck trailer, the decaying box that was once an office, the wreath on a chain link fence, and the lone chair near a wooden fence that become almost narratives, these details trying to communicate something to us, but leaving their stories largely untold. Most often, Ashkin avoids isolation and easy central framing, opting for wide swaths of layered visual information that doesn’t necessarily resolve to quick understanding. In the Meadowlands, sedimentary layers of industrial histories and legacies have piled up in a seemingly endless stream of often bleak transitional spaces, and Ashkin’s rich landscapes explore and embrace those frictions rather than turning away.

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

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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