Greg Wilken’s Terra Incognita
By Tucker Neel
This catalog essay was written for The CUE Art Foundation as part of their Young Critic Mentoring Program. A very special thanks to my mentor, Richard Vine.
To understand this exhibition it’s beneficial to have an idea of how Greg Wilken makes his work. He often arrives at his final images through a process akin to a fact-finding mission. In these expeditions the artist is activated by the discovery of a significant historical event, which results in research, field explorations, documentation gathering, and the presentation of evidence, usually in the form of framed photographs, films, and custom-made artist books. The actual taking of photographs, or making of books results from actions, which are set into motion by initial ideas. Taken at face value, it’s a fairly simple set of events, a way of getting from A to Z, but the resulting art is anything but easy, demanding a cognitive shift in the viewer’s understanding of what they are looking at.
To understand this, let’s look back at an earlier work, Wilken’s On the Natural History of Juan Fernandez, from 2006. This project was initiated by an interest in the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who survived for four years (1703-09) marooned on Juan Fernandez Island just off the coast of Chile. The tiny island has since been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island after the famous Defoe novel inspired by Selkirk’s tale. After conducting research, visiting the island, and taking photographs, Wilken printed two large-format photographs: one of non-native species being removed from the land and one of native species being grown in a greenhouse. He also created a film of plants arranged in a garden, and multiple photos of singular books floating in black expanses. In contrast to the implied didacticism of its title, this body of work obliquely constructs the history of a place with seemingly unrelated images, creating a grouping of propositions about the land as mythic non-site. In this project, much like in the exhibition being created for the CUE Foundation at the time of this writing (which the author of this essay has yet to see actualized in any finalized form), Wilken gives his audience the narrowest bit of visual information, with little attendant text. The underlying message of such a destabilized historical narrative is that the past is not fixed and knowable, but instead the fleeting coagulation of reminiscences, everyday images, and second-hand stories we tell each other.
Wilken’s process often involves library research, no doubt inspiring projects directly imaging printed matter. For example, Literary Encounters from 2010 is a series of silver gelatin prints of found hairs in books, a poetic collection of human indices in contrast to the stark sterility of printed text. In another series, one of the artists’ few hand-made projects, he meticulously renders the frontispieces of books where the past owner left their mark via handwriting, inscription, or ex-libris, again re-presenting the comingling of a human mark with the mechanically printed word, this time to address our relationship to ownership and knowledge.
This interest in the possibilities of bibliographic inspiration translates most obviously in the artist’s own hand-made books, art objects that perform the process of discovery and dispersed comprehension his projects seek to explore. In his books, Wilken often isolates a typology of images and contrasts these with other, seemingly unrelated pictures. This technique is evident in Castaic, a 2010 project investigating the 1928 St Francis dam disaster outside of Los Angeles, the second most deadly disaster in California’s recorded history. Castaic, the book, presents its reader with images from the rather mundane, pasture-like, dam site as it exists today. These images of overgrown golden grass are juxtaposed with cold documentation of broken celluloid, remnants from a 16mm film, also contained in the book. The implication of violence, the latent trauma that permeates sites of overlooked disaster, is present in this book, a realization arrived at through association rather than didactic narrative.
For the new body of work on view in the CUE’s galleries, Wilken took inspiration from The Southern Pacific Railroad company’s early 20th century photographic survey, “The Road of a Thousand Wonders.” This promotional title was used by the railroad to describe the locomotive’s journey from Los Angeles, California to Portland, Oregon. To promote this travel line, the railroad commissioned photographic surveys to capture the vistas and attractions along the route, producing numerous postcards, posters, and prints from this photographic archive. For Wilken, this historical record was enough of a starting point to allow him to travel the same route, creating his own image archive. For the artist, this road is both a physical journey and a metaphor for how we create meaning out of the unknown, how we solidify our understanding of the past. The original early 20th century archival project acts as historical anchor, providing the artist with a road to travel, a space to contemplate, and the license to make images along the way.
Walter Benjamin, inspired by Baudelaire, characterized the urban flâneur’s
derive as a paradigm of perambulation for the Modern man, the perfect way to experience, and critique, the charge of bourgeois capitalism. Given that consumer-friendly structures in the American West were, and still are, build around automotive transportation, perhaps we can take Wilken’s latitudinal journey along the coast as a kind of American post-industrial derive, albeit across greater distances, and in solitude, a perfect reflection of an alienated country “on the road.” In Wilken’s work we can see the abandoned main streets of drive-by towns, rusting industrial architecture along highways, mall parking lots, and cookie-cutter weigh-stations, as our own contemporary arcades, artifacts from our own “primordial landscape of consumption.[i]” Taking the Benjaminian derive as a model for production, Wilken takes to the road, allowing himself to wander consciously, paying close attention to the particulars of the topography that immerses and frames him, taking note of the tangential and yet relevant ideas that spaces, places, and people inspire.
During a recent studio visit with the artist, I find myself pouring over dozens of 4×5 transparencies, freshly developed from Wilken’s most recent journey up the coast. These are a fraction of the total number gleaned from his travels. The images are of lonely gas stations, desolate highways, a Valero service station abutting a humble cemetery, overgrown wooded brush lining an old road turnaround, and other banal scenes reminiscent of passing glances or snapshots. While they may look less idealized, like their Pacific-Railroad-commissioned postcard antecedents, these images speak the language of everydayness that typifies the “feel” of passing through.
We turn to a box of 4×5 transparencies labeled “California Color Theory” holding what appears to be simple color tests depicting fruits against complimentary backgrounds: limes against a cadmium field, oranges on a cerulean background, etc. Another box holds shots of “California Skies,” images of wispy clouds, cumulous thunderheads, and azure expanses. Yet another box is labeled “California Interiors,” holding pictures of kitchens and living rooms, each with their own decorative touches, lace curtains, brass lighting fixtures, gaudy wallpaper, un-remodeled cabinets. Whether these iconographic taxonomies will make their way into the final exhibition or not has yet to be determined. But nevertheless, their presence in Wilken’s studio furthers this notion of a dispersed portrait compiled from disparate, seemingly unrelated parts.
According to Wilken, his recent work takes great conceptual and formal inspiration from artists coming out of the New Topographic Movement, inaugurated by a 1975 exhibition of work by photographers like Bernd and Hilla Becher, Robert Adams, and Stephen Schor. These artists’ photographs dispense with the artiness associated with Modern landscape photography, like Edward Weston or Ansel Adams, whose picturesque views beatify terrain with majestic lighting and dramatic composition. Instead, the New Topographic photographers favor images of the banal, mundane, and ordinary as exemplary views of the contemporary landscape. It’s easy to read Wilken’s work in dialog within this art historical trajectory, seeing as his views of deserted streets and empty parking lots bear striking resemblance to, say, Stephen Shore’s color photograph of an uninhabited thoroughfare in Kalispell Montana, the two bearing the same signs of boredom, stagnancy, and weathered obsolescence. Yet, while glancing through Wilken’s transparencies a distant, more removed precedent comes to mind, something perhaps more closely related to the specific archival impulse underpinning his recent collection of images.
While pouring over Wilken’s 4x5s and 8x10s I am reminded of the late 19th century US geological survey expeditions that attempted to capture the West under the guise of American Manifest Destiny. While Wilken’s work freezes moments along interstates and highways, which follow in the wake of a path carved out by the railroads before them, these 19th century American photographic surveys are the conceptual precedent for the western survey itself, laying the ground for the Pacific Railroad photographic surveys to follow. In many ways, the 19th century US-government sponsored expeditions gave “uninhabited” places, future places of “wonder,” an evidence of existence, rendering the previously unknown “real.” As historian Alan Trachtenberg notes when discussing these early photographic expeditions, “…a photographic view attaches a posessable image to a place name”[ii].
In his essay Naming The View, Trachtenberg discusses the way photographic surveys in the late 19th century set out to document the West, both as a component of mapping, and as a constituent element of westward US expansion. In discussing a 1868-69 series of photographs by T.H. O’Sullivan and explanatory text by the geologist Clarence King, as part of a geological survey commissioned by the US Dept. of War, Trachtenberg notes how one particular grouping of images discards the strict chronological and typological rigidity typical of a government survey in favor of non-linear image diversity. He notes how this book of images brings together views ranging from a mining camp shot from different perspectives, to images of waterfalls, to workers illuminated by flares, to larger panoramic landscapes, all designed to give US war officials, and their capitalist industrial backers, a better understanding of future entrepreneurial endeavors. Trachtenberg writes, “By their diversity, which calls attention to our dependency for what we see upon the photographer’s choices and the camera’s position, the pictures raise a question about cognition, the relation between seeing, investigating, and knowing – the question which lies at the base of the survey as a whole”[iii]. The question becomes how best to capture the essence of conquest, the possibility of fortune, the grandeur of nature in conflict with, and under the new control of, “enlightened” exploratory power? Amidst the seemingly disconnected imagery, in the cognitive interstices between images, we find the spirit of the western project; a bubbling mixture of hard work, reverence for natural wonder, and good-ol’ industrial know-how. While Wilken’s work operates under far less regimented strictures, and outside the purview of governmental oversight, his work too presents a problem of cognition, how we understand and “know” vast expanses of land.
Wilken’s diversity of views, all circulate around, but never quite anchor, the subject at hand: the vast expanse of terrain along America’s West Coast. Back in the 1860s Clarence King characterized such a land as “terra incognita,” unknown land, “a labyrinth of intricate changes”[iv]. Wilken’s transparencies, some of which no doubt have found their way to the walls of these galleries in printed form, make visible the conundrum of this terra incognita. In his images we apprehend, if only momentarily, something all too familiar, yet still unknown. In presenting us with these disparate images, Wilken also problemetizes the very notion of a photographic record, giving rise to dispersed and transitory knowledge about history and the past’s relationship to the present.
[i] Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (1972; reprint, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 827.
[ii] Alan Trachtenberg, “Naming The View,” from Reading American Photographs: Images As History, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989) 125.
[iii] Trachtenberg 134.
[iv] Trachtenberg 133.