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Off the Face of the Earth

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Sally Gall: Subterranea

at Catherine Edelman, through July 12

David Maisel

at Schneider, through July 19

North American landscape painters of the 19th century, working at a time when our wilderness was first being destroyed, created sweeping mountain views that configured nature as a cathedral. Now two photo shows at galleries just across the street from each other offer implied commentaries on today's landscapes. Sally Gall's 16 black-and-white pictures at Catherine Edelman, images also collected in her book Subterranea, find in underground caverns some of the majesty of earlier landscape paintings. David Maisel's seven color aerial views of California's Owens Valley offer frightening, sickly beautiful images of ecological devastation. Are caverns the last refuge for nature lovers?

Gall does include aboveground views that show cave entrances. Near the center of Entry is a jagged black opening in a desert landscape, cutting into the finely textured scrub. The nearby hole and a distant line of mountains create a compelling contrast--between movement into the earth and toward the sky, between the far-off horizon and the unknown realm beneath us. Different realms are also the subject of Quadrant, in which majestic cliffs rise from a body of water. The picture's symmetrical composition--quartering the space into the sky, its reflection in the water, the cliffs, and their darker reflection--heightens one's sense of different textures and different worlds. Hints of entrances in the rough cliff surfaces made me think not just about spelunking but about what might lie underwater.

In her book Gall says she's particularly attracted to "the transition zone just inside caves, what speleologists call the twilight zone," and many of her interior images are set up to suggest passage. Pause shows steps rising toward an opening, the stark contrast between the illuminated and shadowed portions of each step creating an imbalance that, combined with the steps' implied movement, hints at transition. The sense of passage is even more dramatic in Messenger: the camera looks up through a round opening to the white sky above, the hole framing a bare tree rooted in the cave that leads the eye out and up.

Gall, who lives in New York City, is a landscape photographer who turned her attention to caves after taking shelter in one when caught in a downpour in Mexico. She calls her cave photos--taken around the world, from Thailand to Italy to Belize--"visual correlatives for the human innerscape of emotion and experience." And her images of transition certainly have psychological resonance, though likely different meanings for each viewer.

Gall's most extraordinary images are the ones with no hint of the world outside. Using only natural light, she often had to make time exposures of as much as an hour. The delicate rock textures and calm water of Safelight seem especially supple and the light especially strange, perhaps because it's so diffuse: this is a world of perfect quiet, a realm where time seems suspended. Lightfall invokes time: a light-suffused waterfall descends from a hole in the upper wall, spreading into a haze of white in the pool below and dispersing spray and reflected light both blurred and rendered dynamic by the long exposure; the uneven illumination results from the peculiar way light entered the cave. Most important, the water seems to descend on a slight diagonal: throughout the exhibit, Gall's simple imbalances and disparities bring each image to life, giving even greater resonance to her evocative scenes.

Like Gall's experience of caves, David Maisel's flight over Mount Saint Helens in 1983 inspired a series of pictures--and much of his subsequent work. A Princeton student at the time, he went with his teacher, the photographer Emmet Gowin, to view the effects of the eruption, similar in its devastation to the ecological disasters caused by the logging industry. At that point he began what became his metaphorical "black maps" project, a long-standing effort to photograph the way "man's efforts have eradicated the natural order." One part of this undertaking--the "Lake Project," from which this show is drawn--consists of aerial views of Owens Lake, California, the site of an eco-catastrophe that inspired Pat O'Neill's great experimental film Water and Power (1989). Much of the water in this formerly fertile valley has been diverted over a period of decades to Los Angeles, leaving behind salt wastes and bodies of water with such a high quantity of minerals that bizarre red algae sometimes bloom there; clouds of toxic particulate matter are carried aloft in dust storms.

Maisel uses composition and unmanipulated color to let us know that something's wrong. Much of the land in Lake Project #9823-4 is a gentle, seductive baby blue, but through the middle snakes a vivid red stream with a cracked texture--a mostly dry riverbed. Like an open wound, this jagged red is a serious intrusion. Even the fantasy blues are discordant, and many other areas are almost drained of color. Lake Project #9277-1 is even more disturbing: it looks like two continents colliding, a brown land mass on the left supporting a bit of vegetation, the mostly red area at the right burning with a deadly chemical intensity.

Maisel, who works in Sausalito and makes his living as a commercial photographer, faced an unusual challenge here: rendering something he hates visually interesting. Though his stunning colors, complex textures, and clashing shapes at once fascinate and repel, his images lack the spatial complexity of Gall's, and the viewer's reaction is primarily to the subject matter rather than the artistry. All the images at least hint at human structures, if only the line of a dirt road--but these bear an important cause-and-effect relationship to the surreal landscapes. Human structures dominate Lake Project #9281-1, filled with a Pentagon-like cluster of geometric structures--a surface potash mine made possible by the desiccation of Owens Lake. The mine is mostly a disturbing purple, and as a whole it intrudes on the landscape with all the subtlety of a shopping mall in a field. The connection is left to the viewer, but I found it impossible to look at these images without thinking of the lush, green, overwatered lawns of Beverly Hills.

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