Comments/Context: While we often try to convince ourselves that seeing photography on our computer screens is an acceptable substitute for the first hand experience, once in a while a body of work comes along that systematically destroys this nice theory. David Maisel's Library of Dust first surfaced several years ago on the West coast, and we have since seen JPEG reproductions of the work in plenty of articles and reviews. But now that the work has finally reached New York, I can say that even though I was largely familiar with what I was going to see, I was wholly unprepared for the powerful effect these prints actually have in person.
At first glance, these are deceptively simple pictures: straight forward still life shots of copper canisters set against an enveloping black background. Some are burnished to a shiny glow, but most are covered with colorful corrosions and salty encrustations that have built up along the edges and seams. What is altogether surprising is how astonishingly and sublimely beautiful these objects are. The mineral deposits and residues cover the spectrum from sparkling blues and aquamarine greens to acidic yellows and rusty reds; the thick layers of color look alternately like Italian marbled papers and top down views of rugged coastlines and coral reefs. Swirls, waves, bubbles and bumpy sediments are piled on in ever more complex and chaotic forms. Chemical reactions have never looked so good, especially when enlarged to such a massive scale.
Amid all this loveliness, however, comes the jarring backstory to these objects, which turns the beauty on its head and adds a darker, more philosophical meaning to the photographs. The canisters contain the unclaimed cremated remains of patients at the Oregon State Insane Asylum. The simple cans had been sealed in a less than water tight vault for more than a century; the combination of the flood water and the leaching chemicals from the ashes inside caused the corrosions that now decorate the outsides.
These historical facts add an entirely different set of conceptual questions and ideas to the works. Some might see them as meditations on death and passing of time. Others might center on the horrors of such hospitals, or the emptiness of living and dying, abandoned and forgotten by family. Perhaps there is even some glimmer of hope in the idea that the individual personalities of these patients seem to have been reborn in the colorful residues (the images becoming anonymous "portraits"). However the viewer interprets the narrative, the pictures now have many more layers of meaning, and a striking duality that is both inviting and repulsive at the same time. This tension between the visual and conceptual is what makes these works stand out. These prints are also an excellent example of the intelligent use of monumental scale: the scope of the biggest prints highlights the seductive elegance of the objects, which in turn amplifies the contrast with the haunting backstory; not big for the sake of big, but big to increase the power of the emotional payoff.
Overall, these are accomplished, mature images that successfully work on multiple levels. Don't miss the chance to see these prints in person; they're really nothing like the thumbnails you've seen before.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows:
- The 64x48 prints are $15000 each
- The 40x30 prints range from $6600 to $7500, based on the place in the edition
- The 14x11 prints are $2100, or can be purchased in sets of 5 for $9000
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
- Artist site (here)
- Features: Artforum (here), BLDGBLOG (here), LA Times (here), Flyp (here)
- Interview: Archinect, 2006 (here)
- Book review: Lens Culture (here)
Through February 27th
Von Lintel Gallery
520 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011
Von Lintel also has a new blog, with plenty of detailed information on David Maisel (here)