by Jody Zellen
(Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica) The intersection of the natural and the man-made is the subject of Anthony Hernandez's photographs. He has been photographing in the landscape for a number of years, first documenting the places where the homeless resided, later photographing the Idaho landscape, and now focusing his gaze on the city--depicted as abstracted details.
Hernandez is a gifted photographer. He closes in on his subject in order to reveal its intricate details. In the series Landscapes of the Homeless, begun in 1988 and finished in 1991, he carefully documented the out of the way places the homeless retreated to. While photographing these encampments he made sure that no one was about, so as not to disrupt the life of its inhabitants. In these works Hernandez is a voyeur looking in at a community that is obviously other. Yet it is the place, not the people, that interests him.
The resulting large color photographs are aestheticized documents of the homeless' horrible living conditions. These are places built for shelter and survival. Hernandez is not out to artify his subject but rather to point out the inherent contradictions within the urban environment. To make these photographs Hernandez scouted out places where the homeless congregate. The resulting pictures document not only the ingenuity of the homeless but Hernandez' sensitivity to their plight. Viewed at a distance, the images appear to be photographs of the natural landscape. Upon close examination the details of habitation reveal themselves. The contrast between "one's expectation of beauty and the reality of homelessness" is central to the works' impact.
After completing the Landscapes for the Homeless series, Hernandez moved to rural Idaho. Although this landscape is vastly different from the streets of Los Angeles, Hernandez was not inhibited. He turned his camera outwards and photographed the natural landscape looking at what he called "the recurring elements of the Idaho landscape--water, trees, and the earth itself." The resulting series, entitled "In Another World", are large color photographs of expansive spaces. Here the natural world is celebrated for its beauty. Yet it is a beauty that encroaches on the artificial.
In his current series "The City", Hernandez is again looking at the place where aesthetics and destruction merge. In these images, photographed at construction sites, rather than depict the whole environment he focuses his camera on the details. He carefully observes the marks made by the bulldozer, at the treads of the tires, at the scrapes in the concrete. The resulting images are lush abstractions--large compositions that are at once scaleless and endless. The obvious question beyond "What are we looking at?" is "How can something so destructive be so beautiful?"
In these works viewers can make out the discarded branch, the striated dirt, the geometric claw-marks. You at once realize you are looking at a place that was once natural and pure that is now altered by the machine.
Hernandez' works suggest that there is beauty in both the natural and the man-made. The natural landscape is destroyed in order to build. What is built might be beautiful. Although the process of bulldozing trees and trampling nature might be thought of as being ugly, Hernandez points out the beautiful in this now avoidable act of destruction.
In "The City" series a single image taken out of context can be discussed in terms of its formal qualities--its color, the texture, the composition. Yet these marks are found rather than created by the artist. Hernandez uses his camera as a framing device, selecting the most compelling and unusual compositions. When these images are seen together the issues of abstraction fade, making them more a study of place, of change and of man's ability to alter his environment than a study of color and form.
For example in The City #8, two large claw marks from a bulldozer mar the dirt embankment. The surrounding dirt gathers at the bottom of the stripes. Sombre earth tones of gray and brown make up the palette. The image is perfectly balanced. Hernandez gives viewers few clues as to scale, making the resulting image ambiguous. He does not want to tell you why or how, but rather shows you what is.
"The City" series, like the rest of Hernandez's work, is about isolating what is there and finding beauty in it. These works are reminiscent of both Aaron Siskind's black and white compositions of peeling paint and graffitied walls, as well as Frederick Sommer's landscapes in which the natural environment is photographed from above and afar and represented as a small square abstraction that gives no allusions to scale.
Like in Sommers' work, it is difficult to situate one's self in Hernandez' recent photographs. The square format, large scale and heightened color take the works out of the realm of the real into the realm of the hyper-real. But it is the fusion of photographic veracity and photographic abstraction as well as that of the natural with the man-made that is central to Hernandez's work.