“Land Use”

“Land Use,” a group exhibition at Stephen Bulger Gallery featuring photographs by Robert Burley, Dana Fritz, Geoffrey James and Jamey Stillings, is unified by two related yet qualitatively distinct subjects: human activity and human presence, in nature. There exists a ready framework with which to examine each photographer’s relationship to specific locales and topographies of common interest: James and Burley have each photographed the 19th-century parks of Frederick Law Olmsted, and the city of Toronto, extensively. Other close affinities exist: James’s photographs of the United States-Mexico border, titled Running Fence, are in the vicinity of the American southwest, which is here the focal region of works by Stillings and Fritz. Common subjects are deferred for this exhibition, however, giving precedence to each photographer’s unique interpretation of “land use.”

Geoffrey James, Paradise Canyon, Lethbridge, August 1999, gelatin silver print mounted to archival board, 20 x 24 inches. © Geoffrey James.

Featured works by Geoffrey James draw upon several bodies of work, all of which are characterized by the implication of human presence upon the landscape in the notable absence of a populace, evidenced by traces of activity. While the majority originate from “The Lethbridge Project,” an early 2000s study of housing development on prairie land beyond the city limits, the standout initial pairing of works establishes a pointed yet also ruminative precedent for those to follow. Vimy Ridge, 1993, depicts a mountain of tailings from open-pit asbestos mines in Black Lake, Quebec. The scale is barely conjurable, save for the outcropping of forest in the near distance. It is a keen reminder that every occurence of land use is implicitly a collaboration between nature and human intervention. Paradoxically, the shadowy presence of James in the panoramic Biltmore, Asheville, North Carolina, 1990, amplifies the notable absence of people in those photographs to follow. In works including Paradise Canyon, Lethbridge, August 1999, human presence is evidenced by the row of newly built homes that transmute the horizon line from tiered hillside to sloping roofs. Rakes are strewn as if surrendered in the sandpit in the foreground. Collectively, the “Lethbridge” series forces a reconsideration of assumptions pertaining to natural versus cultivated elements in the landscape.

There exists a much clearer demarcation between the technological infrastructure of Ivanpah Solar and the natural landscape of California’s Mojave Desert in the five large-format aerial photographs by Jamey Stillings from the series “The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar,” which documented the realization of Ivanpah Solar’s solar thermal power plant from 2010 to 2014. The selection in “Land Use” predominantly focuses upon those liminal spaces where the plant abuts a wilderness boundary. At times this appears to have been arrived at by the exhaustion of the plant’s expansion; at others, by an imposing topographical feature skirted by jagged access roads on the periphery of the plant, as with #7031, 2 June 2012. The impossible scale of Ivanpah Solar’s existence is believable only given Stillings’s expert composition, which recurrently presents the natural and technological constituents as equally proportioned. The astonishing contrast in texture and patternation is similarly appreciable in these studies by Stillings. Elsewhere, solar panels encroaching upon the mountainscape in #11039, 4 September 2013 proffer comprehension of the ambition of the Ivanpah Solar project, unattainable from ground level. “The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar” is part of a broader initiative by Stillings, titled Changing Perspectives, to document renewable energy initiatives worldwide. Surrounding these initiatives are questions pertaining to the appropriation of natural resources and the ethics of land use.

Dana Fritz, Condiments, Lied Jungle, 2007, pigment print on archival paper, 17 x 25 inches. © Dana Fritz. Images courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto.

The selection of works by Dana Fritz, from the series “Terraria Gigantica: The World Under Glass,” takes three sites as subjects: Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert, the Henry Doorly Zoo in the Great Plains of Nebraska, and the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. Each site is an enclosed environment in which particular topographies, climates and ecosystems have been artificially instigated and sustained for purposes of entertainment, research and education. The discrepancy in environmental conditions between the locale of these sites and the ecosystems they house is frequently jarring, as with Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert, featuring a coral reef. Accordingly, there exist transitional spaces on the fringes of these sites where this discrepancy between the interior environment and external conditions is reconciled, with varying success. Fritz’s studies of these spaces are smaller in scale compared with other prints in the exhibition, yet they command among the most careful scrutiny. Painted Leaves and Dripping Moss, Lied Jungle, 2007, is disarming; the three-dimensional flora in the foreground giving way to the illusion of a misty corridor of foliage might be convincing save for the perpendicular pale shelving intersecting the wall. Moss streaking the face of the mural creates further complexity, rendering a nook of the Henry Doorly Zoo a situation of artifice, where a binary differentiation of the real from the unreal is superseded by a question of degrees, and layering.

Robert Burley’s photographs, from the series An Enduring Wilderness, attest to the criticality of parkland in Toronto. The earliest of Toronto’s permanent public parks were inaugurated during the 1850s. Today, parklands are predominantly owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and managed by the City of Toronto. Comprising over 8,000 hectares, half of these sites are natural parkland. A clear proponent of the import of accessibility to, and preservation of, Toronto’s parklands, Burley’s studies give as much consideration to the diversity of parkland as to their multivalent uses by Toronto’s populace throughout the city’s changeable seasons. In E.T. Seton Park, 2012, he captures Toronto’s parklands as a natural playground for unbounded recreation, seemingly closer in his photographs than in life. His affection for those parklands where it is feasible to explore freely without the prescription of movement imposed by roads, pathways and transit systems belonging to the city is the common thread unifying the series.

Jamey Stillings, #11039, 4 September 2013, archival pigment print mounted to Dibond, 44 x 64 inches. © Jamey Stillings.

As a group exhibition, “Land Use” transcends a singularly geographic focus to address the complexity of land use through studies that may be extrapolated beyond their overtly North American focus. James, Stillings and Fritz provide access to the uncharted, otherwise unobtainable, or overlooked, while Burley’s contribution reads as a concise and potent argument for the necessity of parkland in inner cities. What emerges, and what makes “Land Use” compelling, is the exhibition’s examination of our changing relationship to the environment through a selection of works by four photographers who, collectively, are considerate of the environment as changeable under human influence, but also of the equally transformative potential of environmental influence with—and also despite—human intervention.

“Land Use” was exhibited at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, from July 21 to September 8, 2018.

Jacques Talbot is a Kingston-based writer with interests in photography and installation art.

Volume 37, Number 4: Women + Sculpture

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #148, published December 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.