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March 1 - 23, 2002 at Circle Elephant Art, Silver Lake

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

When we think of photographic landscapes, it is natural to first imagine stunning vistas that speak of the beauty or power of nature. Images that frame the earth and sky have shaped the tra-dition of this medium for over a century and a half, and encompass such familiar names as Gustave LeGray, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. Bill Clark enters this historical dialogue, but with a much different focus. He is concerned with the minutiae of the landscape, both urban and wild.

Occupying a realm more in keeping with the minimalist movement, the artist presents close-ups of decaying land and structures that we build upon it, to create another world entirely. The resulting images, seas of colors and textures, that tend to emphasize a painterly feel. The mark of a good photographer has always been to reveal/see what the average person overlooks. Clark's images ask us to take the time and effort to examine the details of our environment.

What adds a wonderful edge to his work is the fact that you often cannot figure out what you are looking at. From his Surface series, Marin at first glance appears to be a wonderful painting highly reminiscent of Clifford Still. A swirling sea of deep blues and rust browns fill the surface with a vibrant energy. However, this is the remains of a piece of rusted metal--debris, junk. A strong subtext here is the old saw, what is the nature of beauty? Clark is very much connected to the tradition of assemblage, which continually asks: given the value conventionally attached to the precious and rare, let us transform the discards and refuse of our culture into objects of beauty. It is precisely the formalism and art historical references that effect this transformation.

Indeed, these series of photographs are fun to look at. Lakota, another of his Surface series works, is a weathered and rusted metal surface where paint has peeled away to reveal textured gaps. This creates a series of contrasts of light and dark, and plays of shape that are enhanced by the warm tones that bath the surface. Anonymous urban scenes like this have a mysterious power that comes from our inability to place where this images come from.

The Landscape series sticks to Clark's exploration of the details of the outdoors. Desert Floor uses the deeply textured cracks that result from weathering and drought in that parched environment to render a visually suggestive network of line. However, the landscape images lack the intense close focus of the urban works, and because they are more easily recognized, they are more comforting but far less challenging.

Both series of photographs, which range from the destruction of the city to the natural deterioration of the land, present imaginative puzzles for the viewer to decipher. These magnified details of the world give us plenty of room to pause and reflect.

“Sixth,” color photograph, 2001.

“Marin,” color photograph, 2001.

“Desert Floor,” color photograph, 1998.

“Oregon,” color photograph, 1989.