2.18 / Review

The American Landscape at the Tipping Point

By Spencer Young May 28, 2011

Lately, when flying, I’ve noticed fellow passengers roll their eyes whenever the captain announces, “If you look to your left you’ll be able to see such and such iconic feature of the American landscape.” Maybe Google Maps is to blame. Or maybe the in-flight movie really is more interesting than watching the Wasatch Mountains roll by. Nevertheless, Alex MacLean’s aerial photographs in The American Landscape at the Tipping Point challenge such indifference by allowing viewers to peruse the backyard of America—especially those parts not seen from commercial airlines—on pause. Shot between 1984 and 2010, and stretching from Florida to California, The American Landscape shows the spectacular confluence of nature and modern technology.

The landscapes, mostly unremarkable deserts, take a back seat to the graceful lattice of interconnecting highways, the elegant bodices of networked pylons, the majestic geometry of grounded B-52 bombers, and the gorgeous maze of wind turbines. The size, scale, and desolation of these images underscore the confused sublimity of technology and the vapid sterility of landscape. So when images such as Turkey Point Cooling Canals, Homestead, Florida (2007) and Concentrated Solar, Clark County, Nevada (2009) are juxtaposed, they break down the unsteady divide of the natural versus the unnatural. This dichotomy disintegrates due to the irony that Turkey Point, a nuclear power plant, seamlessly blends into its environment, while Concentrated Solar, a solar plant, looks ridiculously out of place—kind of like a giant storm drain in the middle of a desert. All of a sudden the artificial starts to look more at home in the natural environment.

Another critical shift in the terrain comes via another pair of related images, Umbrella Territory, Camaiore, Tuscany, Italy (2010) and RV Storage Facility, Sun City, Arizona (2005). From a distance, both Umbrella and RV share a hypnotizing grid of patterned objects—umbrellas and RVs, respectively—atop what looks to be concrete. This distant perspective immediately relates them to Ed Ruscha’s Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967), a series of aerial

Concentrated Solar, Clark County, Nevada, 2009; chromogenic print, edition of 9; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.

Umbrella Territory, Camaiore, Tuscany, Italy, 2010; chromogenic print, edition of 9. 60 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.

photographs of deserted Los Angeles parking lots. Of the series, Ruscha said, “Those patterns and their abstract design quality mean nothing to me. I'll tell you what is more interesting: the oil droppings on the ground."1

Ruscha’s pattern-breaking, anomaly-seeking logic points to the importance of shifting scales, particularly in images like MacLean’s in which scale is everything. A closer perspective of Umbrella and RV, for instance, reveals that the concrete in Umbrella is actually a beach, a beach littered with sunburnt topless women in white thongs and boys playing with toys. And in RV, amongst the sea of homogeneous RVs all neatly parked at a sixty-degree angle, subtle portraits of play peek through; jet skis and fishing boats, like lost outliers, gain emphasis on a human scale.

Besides Ruscha’s work, The American Landscape also shares affinities with Koyaanisqatsi (1982), a cult film that also scrutinizes the dynamic tension between nature and civilization in America through the critical lens of the aerial perspective. Subtitled Life out of BalanceKoyaanisqatsi, like The American Landscape, points to the precariousness of the environment at the threshold of development. The difference in media, however, drastically distinguishes the two. Koyaanisqatsi employs slow-motion and time-lapsed footage that begins with nature and ends with culture. The American Landscape, on the other hand, captures nature and culture already entangled, like a readymade, or an object to be (re)considered in its current context. While the former suggests the tipping point has already happened, the latter asks us to reconsider what an American landscape should be pointing to, let alone tipping toward.



The American Landscape at the Tipping Point is on view at Robert Koch Gallery, in San Francisco, through July 2, 2011.



1. David Bourdon, “Ruscha as Publisher (or All Booked Up),” Art News 71 (April 1972), 34.

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