Richard Mosse: Tristes Tropiques @Jack Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 large scale color photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in both the 20th Street and 24th Street gallery spaces. All of the works are archival pigment prints (mostly single images, with 2 diptychs and 1 triptych) made in 2020 or 2021. Physical sizes of the single panel works range from roughly 48×59 to 59×143 inches, with the multi-panel works aggregating 2 or 3 panels into larger arrays. All of the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Art that wrestles with our collective environmental struggle faces the very real challenge of finding new ways to jolt us out of our state of jaded numbness. With daily news footage already providing a steady stream of imagery of punishing storms and wildfires, parched areas of failed crops and extreme drought, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, animal and plant extinctions, and widespread ecosystem destruction, it’s almost as if art can’t compete in this constantly accelerating battle of visual extremism. The unvarnished truths are ever more shocking on their own, thereby making a straightforward artistic amplification strategy – i.e. making the images of environmental scenes scarier than they already are – somewhat less successful in holding our attention.

Particularly in the past decade, photographers have actively wrestled with a range of alternate ways to communicate the urgency of the situation, and many artists have taken on the role of educators, essentially teaching us via their images. Some have turned their cameras toward the natural resources that are rapidly vanishing (glaciers, forests, wetlands etc.), trying to capture the grandeur of what we might lose (or are already losing) before it disappears. This is an approach that has its roots all the way back in the 19th century, with the survey photographs that introduced us to the majesties of the American West, and later, in the photographs of Ansel Adams, which helped ignite the environmental conservation and protection movement in this country.

Others have, in a sense, taken the opposite approach, searching out the most egregious examples of deliberate environmental destruction taking place across the planet, and bringing back the grim photographic evidence for us to see for ourselves. Here in America, that kind of thinking (and seeing) sets its foundation in the 1970s, conceptually in the work of the New Topographics photographers who chronicled the suburbanization of the American West, and with a more activist bent in the concerned documentary mindset of photojournalists tracking down the consequences of each and every oil spill, chemical plant discharge, and failed toxic waste disposal that reached the headlines.

Since many of the worst environmental offenders are doing their work in remote places where few people actually witness what is going on, and often the scope and extent of the damage isn’t really visible unless seen from above, photographs taken from the air (and more recently drone or satellite) have offered one effective way to assess the damage taking place. Aerial photographs have long shown us the patterns and contours of the land invisible from the ground, but Emmet Gowin’s 1970s aerial images of US government bomb test grounds in Nevada applied that same aesthetic idea to desert areas with had been pockmarked and cratered by the military, creating images that oscillate between sublime tonal beauty and abject environmental horror. Since then, photographers like Edward Burtynsky and David Maisel have taken up Gowin’s mantle, making eerily beautiful images of the ugliness of strip mines, chemical pools, salt ponds, and dozens of other man-made disasters, all in the hopes of generating a meaningful reaction from an increasingly distracted audience. It’s a tough battle, as the more beautiful these artists make their images, the more their decorative elegance lulls us into inaction.

Richard Mosse’s recent photographs of the Brazilian rainforest follow directly in these footsteps, albeit with his own unique brand of technological wizardry. Mosse is likely best known for his 2010 series Infra (reviewed here), which used discontinued infrared film to transform images of rebel fighters in the verdant hills of eastern Congo into an eye-popping inversion of enveloping cotton candy pink. More recently, he has used thermal imaging technology to document refugee camps in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa (reviewed here), turning migrants and displaced peoples into shadowy inverted ghosts. In each project, he has blended the instincts of a photojournalist with the technological acumen of an inveterate 21st century tinkerer, his results constantly reversing and upending our assumptions about what “natural” imagery might look like.

In these new works, Mosse employs multispectral imaging captured by drones, the kind used by scientists (and agricultural/mining businesses) to assess deforestation and ecological damage. Starting with thousands of individual images of particular locations in the rainforest, Mosse builds up highly detailed composite works that are filled from edge to edge with complex visual information. Given their straight down vantage point, we can almost read them as maps, as Mosse’s signature color reversals and palette modifications amplify their bold graphic qualities.

Many of the images document burnt areas of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. From several steps back, the surreal colors of the works are most visible – curved lines of rivers turned pastel green or murky light blue, and areas of bushy greenery inverted into saturated bands of magenta, orange, and red, particularly right along the river’s edge where the forest is thick.

Up close, the story is much more bleak. Much of the area has been charred and blackened, and nose-to-the-frame inspection yields crispness at the level of individual trees, which are now dry husks and spindly forms. Whole areas seem to simmer with residual smoke, as if the fires continue to smolder, with one specific area suffering from a subterranean fire which expressively mottles the surface with movement. While we think of the Amazon rainforest as teeming with life, these pictures tell a different story – of a blackened hellscape turned even more strange by Mosse’s color tweaks. This dark mood finds its bottom in a haltingly beautiful image of pond choked with piled up debris and cut through by a road, the thick coat of algae and greenery covering the surface turned a sickly blood red. Up close, we can see the pond is overrun by alligators, their tiny forms clustered along the banks. If the image wasn’t so striking, we’d think it was dishearteningly menacing.

In other images, the curved organic forms of nature are interrupted by the hard edged geometries of man-made incursion. Mosse shows us a massive aluminum refinery, a sawmill, various mining operations (including illegal operations taking place on forest reserve lands), a eucalyptus plantation, and a cattle feedlot, each tucked into the rainforest and offering its own kind of destruction. The mining operations are particularly noticeable, as they turn the forest into expanses of sand and other discarded dirt, silting up the riverbeds and killing off the surrounding greenery. The refinery, sawmill, and feedlot are populated with the most visible industrial-scale activity, with pipes connecting various tanks and factory buildings and tiny cattle clustering within striped grazing areas. Inside the work zones, there is very little greenery left, so Mosse’s surreal colors tend to hover on the periphery, the interiors turned a deathly grey.

The one image in this show that feels even vaguely optimistic documents how an indigenous community has made its life in the rainforest. Thin, low-impact pathways radiate outward from a circular village arrangement, where the central gathering area is the only spot that has been cleared. The heaviest traffic zone leads from the village to the river, but otherwise, the impact on the surroundings has been thoughtfully contained – the village feels aware and respectful of its environment, rather than blindly overpowering (and therefore destroying) it.

The omniscient perspective of all aerial/drone photography, especially that sourced from available images rather than composed by the artist, makes it difficult to build a consistently original voice – Mosse’s unusual palette differentiates these works, but they still clearly fall into genre already defined by Burtynsky, Maisel, and others. As drones become more widely used, we’re going to continue to see the world in ways we haven’t before, but upending the same eye-in-the-sky perspective will increasingly become a critical artistic challenge. Mosse has proven multiple times that he can smartly reorient our experience of imagery via unexpected technology choices, and these Brazilian images are a solid first pass at making drone imagery his own. If he can go further, and get wilder, he may ultimately make an even more durably powerful claim on the possibilities of this new artistic territory.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $15000 and $70000, based on size. Mosse’s work has begun to show up in the secondary markets in the past few years, with prices ranging from roughly $15000 to $45000.

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