(Infra) Structure is an exhibition of artwork in the Lannan Collection examining the notion of structure. Photographs of buildings, train tracks, and internet cables are presented with architectural renderings, dreamed-up gardens, and a model of a make-believe house. Images of monumental land art projects and a drawing of a massive sculpture face a city in miniature and a tabletop askew. Looking at the ways in which artists take structural foundations and record, rearrange, or imagine them anew, (Infra) Structure reminds us of the depth of human ingenuity.
Still life photographer Laura Letinsky uses the dining table as a focal point, assembling objects and food in minimalist, altar-like arrangements. Influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch-Flemish still life painting, her work always presents a sense of “after the fact.” Her images are not of a dinner party in full swing but rather the aftermath and detritus of a memorable gathering. Objects and food are not always recognizable, but there is a definite sense of what was, as if from an archaeological dig. With the table as the foundation, almost like a canvas, we witness scenes from the morning after. Letinsky’s more recent work moves away from a literal portrayal of the table into images that play with space and dimension. With this shift, she incorporates paper cutouts of professionally photographed food and tableware from lifestyle magazines. Combining three-dimensional forms with two-dimensional spaces, Letinsky’s work gives the viewer an uneasy sense, as if the floor were tilted and what you see might just slide off the surface. Of her III Form and Void Full series, from which this work comes, she said, “Making this work is for me about building a world I can live—believe—in, and living—believing—in a world I can build. It’s ‘all I got . . . (but it’s a lot),’ to quote some inane pop song from the 70s.”
Also playing with perspective, Pard Morrison’s aluminum fabrications are based on a rational, geometric foundation, using color to denote depth and space. Morrison describes his work as “momentary portraits of systems that are in flux.” Appearing both solid and apparitional at once, the likeness to something engineered and purposeful is displaced by the awareness that the viewer’s optical perception plays a key role in how the object is recognized. The artist explains, “My interest lies in the exploration of this intersection: the intersection of pictorial illusion and specific object, and the marriage of both. I hope to create work that upon first encounter primarily reads as artificially fabricated but upon further investigation, the visual strength of its own ‘objectness’ is compromised by specific human mark-making.”
In the photographs of Josef Schulz we are reminded of the physical traces of borders and how architecture can be a distinct demarcation between one country and another. For his Übergang (German for “crossing”) series, Schulz photographed disused military checkpoints and border stations across Europe. After the establishment of the European Union, many highly guarded borders became irrelevant. In photographing these empty symbols of divide, the artist draws attention to the physical traces of borders—many of which no longer exist—and how difficult they are to erase. He explains, “Borders were lines, drawn not only across territories but also through our heads.” Making the architectural structure the primary focus, Schulz digitally manipulates the image to blur the background, slightly removing it from its physical location and making the landscape unspecific and exchangeable. Schulz states that his work is personally significant: “I grew up in Poland, a country whose territory has been repeatedly redefined in the course of history. The border police have now disappeared from our frontiers too, and the border stations seem quite harmless today—but they will continue to conjure up unsettling images in our minds for many years to come.”
Olivo Barbieri makes photographs using a tilt-shift lens, portraying cities such as New York, Las Vegas, Shanghai, and Rome in miniature. By simulating a shallow depth of field, this technique gradually blurs the top and bottom or left and right edges of the image, creating a radiating center focus. The resulting urban portraits render their subjects in miniature, making some of the world’s biggest cities look like models. Barbieri’s photographs are taken from a helicopter, giving him a rare bird’s-eye view, like Gulliver observing the Lilliputians. The artist works in series and has created groups of work based on cities, beaches, mountains, and waterfalls. In The Waterfall Project, Barbieri traveled to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring falls, such as Victoria (Zambia/Zimbabwe), Iguazu (Argentina/Brazil), and Khone Papeng (Laos/Cambodia). In the case of Niagara Falls (Canada/USA), through Barbieri’s lens, one of North America’s most daunting and awe-inspiring natural wonders becomes charming and amusement park–like.
Michael Heizer said, “I think earth is the material with the most potential because it is the original source material.” As a leading artist in the land art movement, Heizer has been intervening in the landscape since the late 1960s. Influenced by his anthropologist father and geologist grandfather, Heizer had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Heiner Freidrich in Germany in 1969. For that show he excavated 1,000 tons of earth in a conical shape to form the Munich Depression. In 1970 Heizer completed Double Negative, consisting of two trenches created by displacing 240,000 tons of rock at Mormon Mesa, Nevada. Of the project he said, “There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture.” In 1972 Heizer began construction for another enormous work, City, a lifelong project in the desert of Lincoln County, Nevada. As Heizer said of City, “I’m building this work for later. I’m interested in making a work of art that will represent all the civilization to this point.” Covering territory approximately a mile and a quarter long by more than three-quarters of a mile wide, akin to the size of the National Mall in Washington, DC, Heizer’s sculpture takes inspiration from the ancient city of Chichen Itza. This aerial photograph of the project illustrates its massive size and harmony with the landscape.
Another artist who created a monumental installation in the American West is Walter de Maria. His 1977 The Lightning Field consists of 400 steel poles—each 2 inches in diameter and averaging 20 feet, 7½ inches in height and spaced 220 feet apart—arranged in a grid formation measuring 1 mile by 1 kilometer near Quemado, New Mexico. The height of each pole is adjusted for the topography so that the tips meet on the same visual plane. John Cliett is a New York–based photographer perhaps best known for his work with de Maria on The Lightning Field. Commissioned by the artist and the Dia Art Foundation in New York, Cliett produced a series of more than 100 photographs of de Maria’s land art creation. Created in 1978 and 1979, Cliett’s images remain the most reproduced and striking documentation of de Maria’s monumental installation. He explained, “My goal was a very competitive one, which was to make pictures that were so astounding that nobody would ever be able to make a better one. That the pictures would overwhelm the work: that was my goal.”
Rather than documenting the light created by the sun and lightning, Christina Seely‘s project Lux illuminates the connection between artificial light and beauty and how it is manifested on earth’s surface. Using NASA maps, Seely identified 45 of the most brightly lit cities in the United States, Europe, China, and Japan and then visited them to make her own recording of their particular glow. Named after the unit for measuring illumination, Lux very clearly distinguishes the hot spots of economically and politically powerful regions on the planet, whose glare is staggering in comparison to countries and continents that lie in almost total darkness. While Seely does identify cities and she titles her works based on longitudinal and latitudinal degrees, each title also includes the term metropolis, establishing the body of work as being less about individual countries and more about a region’s global impact on the planet’s shared ecology and limited resources.
Christine Corday has combined her interests in the sciences and fine arts to paint, sculpt, draw, and design. Her work includes metal alloy sculptures called the Protoist Series, designed to change and rust with human interaction (the first was displayed under the High Line in New York City); the black iron oxide selected to cover the National September 11 Memorial; abstract charcoal drawings; and abstract synthetic polymer and pigment paintings. This charcoal rendering on newsprint shows KNOUN, one of two massive torch-cut steel sculptures realized by Corday. Debuting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015, KNOUN is a two-pillar form with a base and a height of 13 feet that investigates balance and gravity. The term protoist, coined by the artist, is meant to describe forms in and out of a solid state. About her Protoist Series, Corday writes, “Human scale has always been of great interest to my work. . . . The function of sensory perception is to bring an unknown into definition. . . . Human scale is a chosen moment in the awareness of this perceptive function—this is the work of the Protoist Series.”
Joanne Lefrak makes drawings of places that are deeply embedded with history and meaning, such as spiritual and healing sites, pilgrimage sites, and ghost towns. No writing instruments or paper are involved in her drawings. Rather Lefrak scratches lines into Plexiglas, making an image apparent as a shadow on the surface behind it. Like etchings, the images are richly detailed, and the shadow effect lends depth to create a sense of infinite space. Trinity Site, in southern New Mexico, is the subject of a series of landscapes by Lefrak. She explains, “At first I was attracted to the historical narrative of the Trinity Site because . . . the resulting landscape after the atomic bomb was detonated is a kind of a physically ‘empty’ landscape yet completely not empty at the same time when considered within the context of our historical and current collective ideas of war.” Indeed, this landscape reveals little or nothing about the military-industrial complex that created it and has used it as a place of advancing weapons of mass destruction. In Trinity Site (2013) the only sign of humankind in the landscape is a barbed-wire fence.
Similarly delicate lines are seen in the work of Fred Sandback, whose minimalist sculptures outline planes and volumes in space by simply dissecting a room with colored yarn. With discreetly affixed ends, the yarn appears to come from within the wall or floor, stretching from one surface to another, creating the illusion of glass-like planes outlined in color. Like other artists in the minimalist movement, Sandback wanted to eschew symbolic references and recognizable imagery in his work and replace them with the here-and-now experience of moving through space. Describing the work, Sandback said that he left “discrete sculptural volumes for a sculpture which becomes less of a thing in itself, more of a diffuse interface between myself, my environment, and others peopling that environment, built of thin lines that left enough room to move through and around. Still sculpture, though less dense, with an ambivalence between exterior and interior. A drawing that is habitable.” All his “inhabitable drawings” originated as physical marks on paper in studies the artist produced. Presented in the exhibition are the artist’s imagined installations for German gallerist Heiner Friedrich in 1971 (not shown) and a 1989 design for the Dia Art Foundation in New York.
A centerpiece of the (Infra) Structure exhibition is Armajani’s epic drawing Written Minneapolis (The Last Tomb), 2014. This felt-pen-on-Mylar drawing measures 36 inches high by an impressive 222 inches long. In a love letter to both his hometown of Tehran and his adoptive home, Armajani portrays Minneapolis with its vernacular architecture and an air that is distinctly midwestern. Created on a specially made tilted work space in his studio, the scroll-like drawing is rich with shading and detail, all created using text written in the artist’s native Persian.
Of this work Armajani wrote:
Among the works in this exhibition is Written Minneapolis (The Last Tomb), 2014. It is 18 feet long and a mix of writings and drawings of the neighborhood of my place of work.
At the end of the nineteenth century and into the first two decades of the twentieth, this part of Minneapolis was developed to be used for warehouses and light industry. By now, the neighborhood has morphed from its early years of grain elevators into a mixed use of storage houses, residential, and crisscrossed with railroad tracks, some useful and some useless.
Written Minneapolis (The Last Tomb) is a crooked memory of my childhood and adolescence in Tehran, and then later on after I came to Minneapolis. Empty spaces were filled with poetry that I had to memorize as a student . . . some Persian and some impromptu translations by my teacher of French symbolist poets.
The work of photographer Trevor Paglen deliberately blurs the lines between science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to fashion painstaking and unknown research methods to decipher the world in which we live. His subjects include experimental geography, state secrecy, military symbology, and visuality. The images presented in this exhibition are from the artist’s series on the geography and aesthetics of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance program. For this body of work, Paglen visited shoreline sites and underwater locales where the NSA has tapped transoceanic cables. Contrary to popular belief, personal communications and data are not transmitted in thin air via a “cloud.” Rather information is passed from one part of the globe to another via an intricate underwater cable system that the NSA monitors regularly at designated choke points. Coupled with collages of maritime maps and documents revealing their status as NSA surveilled locations (like this one at Morro Bay, California), Paglen’s banal seascapes reveal to the viewer just how little we know about what goes on below the surface. Learning to scuba dive, Paglen extended his work to the ocean floor, documenting the vulnerable and very much physical infrastructure that global communications depend on, such as this internet cable in the Bahamas.
Victoria Sambunaris has also documented American infrastructure, with trains and highways figuring prominently in her work. Nearly every year since 1999, Sambunaris has set out from her home in New York to cross the United States by car, alone, with her camera. In a piece for LightBox, TIME‘s photo blog, she explained her frame of mind when on the road: “Once I am rolling down the road, there’s a feeling of anticipation as I wonder about what lies ahead. The seemingly enormous inner turmoil over leaving New York is purged—a sort of ritualistic cleansing as I transition to the road. The monotony of the interstate, soon enough, becomes familiar and comforting once again. Driving it requires patience—looking and waiting—similar to the act of taking a picture. I watch the world pass across my windshield with time to think, look and listen. The Mississippi River has become a kind of first milestone for me; when I cross it, my state of mind shifts and the world slows down. In the car, I listen to the radio, the truckers on the CB or maybe some Led Zeppelin—a regular on my playlist. It keeps things lively.” Her photographs capture the expansive American landscape and the human-made and natural adaptations that intersect it, including trains in Texas and Wyoming, trucks in New Jersey and Wisconsin, the oil pipeline in Alaska, salt flats and mines in Utah, and images of the wall along the US–Mexico border. Combined, they present a sparse and vast landscape, dotted by human intervention, that is distinctly American. Sambunaris’s work in this exhibition celebrates the train, a symbol of western expansion for almost two centuries and a subject the artist has lovingly photographed and videotaped for more than 15 years.
In direct contrast to the idealized or utopian cityscapes of Barbieri and Armajani are Guy Tillim‘s grave portraits of contemporary African cities. Born in South Africa, Tillim worked as a photojournalist for news agencies such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse for more than a decade before making the switch to fine art photography. Primarily working in sub-Saharan Africa, Tillim has created several bodies of work that examine the legacy of colonialism, especially as exhibited in architecture. For his series Jo’berg, Tillim roamed Johannesburg’s dense and decaying neighborhood of Hillbrow, an area dramatically affected by social and political changes during South Africa’s transition out of apartheid. Crowded, dirty, and seemingly uninhabitable, the old apartment buildings and crumbling skyscrapers in Tillim’s images reveal living conditions for contemporary Africans that are nearly apocalyptical. Initially a “white only” area, Hillbrow began in the 1970s to become home to waves of poor from the townships and to African immigrants from surrounding war-torn and economically challenged nations. Parts of Johannesburg, once considered the “New York of Africa,” are now the nation’s most dangerous and feared neighborhoods. In Tillim’s images, we see a startling portrait of modernism where the promise of concrete, steel, and glass has given away to a poverty, crime, and a broken social contract.
—Christie Davis, Program Director for Art