Memento Mori: Warnings from
the American West and Antarctica
On display through Feb. 22
City Gallery at Waterfront Park
34 Prioleau St.
Here’s a cheerful theme for an art show: a reminder that life is finite, that we are all mortal, that we’re an easily burst pimple on the great buttocks of nature.
The photographs of Memento Mori (Latin for “remember you will die”) constantly warn us not to get cocky. Mountains, deserts, and snowscapes will be around thousands of years after we’ve passed.
Despite the gloomy title, guest curator Mark Long doesn’t aim to depress us. Instead he intends to spark debate about civilization’s relationship with the planet. He’s got plenty of memorable material to work with, spanning 20 years of work from artists Michelle Van Parys and Stuart Klipper.
There’s a lot of humor in this exhibition thanks to wry shots from Way Out West by Van Parys, a CofC professor of art. Displayed on the second floor of the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, they chart her journeys in the west. In Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah, she shows the scale of the breathtaking landscapes around her by highlighting the man-made objects she encounters. It’s left up to the viewer to decide whether these objects are blemishes, improvements, or simple necessities of modern living.
Depictions of desert road signs, rocky monuments, and tacky off-road attractions are nothing new. But Van Parys manages to keep the topic fresh, using lush black-and-white photography and an imaginative eye for detail. In the world of her imagination, the shadow of a basketball hoop becomes a dreamcatcher, a lumpy rock is imbued with the facial features of a California raisin (“Rock Canyon Road”), and a truckload of godly garden ornaments go on a joyride (“Religious Outing”).
Commentary is through juxtaposition. In “God Bless America,” a patriotically painted side of a store has a “guns ‘n’ ammo” sign right next to it. Beautiful mountains stand implacably in the background. In a different shot, an “open” sign on a stretch of New Mexican scrubland points toward a ruined wood building, sides sagging, door agape with age.
Van Parys’ eye for the idiosyncratic and her sense of humor are encapsulated in some of her titles. “Scenic Overlook” shows an outhouse facing Arizona rock structures, evincing a call of nature in more ways than one. “Get Free” documents a store advertisement with a “get one free” offer, but also comments on the boundless landscape beyond.
There are other themes present in the show — culture clash (an Indian chief and a Yamaha bike rider swap places), the taming of wild space (a neat “New Development” bringing suburbia to Nevada), and man’s urge to leave his mark on a stretch of territory (graffiti carved into rock in “Tattoo Landscape,” artfully painted boulders in “Eyes & Teeth”).
But above all there’s that reminder that we are mortal. The point is clearly stated with “Desert Grave” and “Mining Graveyard,” two pitiful scenes symbolizing man’s futile attempt to dominate nature. As overgrowth begins to smother the graveyard, it’s obvious who’s in charge.
Almost all of these images are uninhabited. One deviation is “Sand Dunes,” where a baby plays in the foreground against a backdrop of massive Colorado dunes. The baby isn’t the only emblem of hope and renewal. The California “New Palms” stretch proudly into the sky, suggesting that there are some mortals out there who want to give something back to the planet — if only to cut the trees down and sell them when they get bigger.
The only criticism to make about Van Parys’ Way Out West series is its sheer breadth. There are over 50 of the toned silver gelatin prints, almost too many to absorb in one viewing. A more select grouping of, say, 20 to 30 of the best shots would have more impact.
On the ground floor of the gallery, another kind of wilderness has been photographed; one of snow and ice, documenting Stuart Klipper’s multiple voyages to the Antarctic from the Circle to the Pole.
The color scheme is as calm and cold as you would expect, with a few exceptions. The bronze sunlight on a “Southern Ocean, 1993” shows a thin strip of light on the horizon, with clouds above and sea below. Klipper’s use of symmetry makes you feel as if you’re being sucked into the shot. In “Memorial, Obs Hill, McMurdo Station, Ross I., McMurdo Sound 1989,” the cool blue ground makes pale yellow sunlight look particularly striking.
Like Van Parys, Klipper finds artificial objects in these snowy wastes and makes them stand out. Whether it’s a pale red marker flag or a NASA radar reflector, human traces seem miniscule beside the vast snowy wastes. A striated iceberg off Booth Island stretches across the horizon like a solid wall, and a tabular iceberg shot in 1994 is positively monolithic. To get the full impressive effect of his surroundings, Klipper uses a panoramic framing that gives his images a cinematic appeal.
For sheer emotional impact, however, Van Parys’ photographs are far more effective, proving that you don’t have to travel halfway across the world to find wonders.