Comments/Context: With our cities made of towering skyscrapers and our natural world hemmed in by dense forests, it's easy for Northeasterners like ourselves to forget just how big the sky really is; whenever we look up, our view is constrained by something taller or more massive. Joe Deal's elegant pictures of the Midwestern prairies and grasslands are a jolting reminder of the immensity of the sky, the kind that can be seen for miles and miles in every direction, uninterrupted by the nuances of the flat landscape, the kind that reminds us of our paltry insignificance in relation to the endless emptiness that stretches to the horizon.
Like the grids of property lines laid down by surveyors more than a century ago (cutting up the empire using the rigidity of latitude and longitude rather than the natural breaks in the land itself), Deal has also imposed a geometry of his own on these broad views, a consistent square bisecting land and sky, like a Sugimoto seascape. With the eye of a geologist, he has documented sinkholes and glacial depressions, rolling hills and plateaus dotted by scrub and rock, and lonely buttes and cottonwood trees breaking up the perfect symmetry. Dust storms, smoke, stormy skies and wind across the grass are the only points of movement. The quiet compositions are spare and meditative, the light and shadow falling on the land in a thousand subtle variations from white to black.
Beyond the fact that these are perhaps the best black and white pigment prints I have seen lately, especially in terms of their richness of tonality and timbre (in other words their craft), what I like most about this body of work is that Deal has seemingly found a way out of the conceptual cul-de-sac of the New Topographics. Rather than repeat once again even more dire views of current suburban sprawl and environmental damage (only for them to fall on increasingly deaf ears), he has gone back to the land itself, and asked himself some more personal questions about his own memories of his Kansas roots and his evolving perceptions of the land he grew up on. While these pictures tie back to the 19th century images of the master wilderness photographers, in the end, I think they are about mature and sophisticated balance, about the relationship between earth and sky, and the relationship between man and earth.
Collector's POV: All of the prints in this exhibit are priced at $8000 each. Deal's work is rarely available in the secondary markets; only a very few prints have come up for sale in recent years. Prices for those prints ranged between $1000 and $4000.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
- Exhibit: RISD Museum of Art 2009 (here); Providence Journal review (here); Brian Sholis review (here)
Through May 8th
Robert Mann Gallery
New York, NY 10001