Critics’ Picks

Mattie with a Bourbon Red Turkey, Laverty Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, November, 2004

Mattie with a Bourbon Red Turkey, Laverty Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, November, 2004

Boston

Laura McPhee

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue
May 13–September 17, 2006

Looking as though she’s engaged in a pagan ritual, a woman in white holds aloft an instrument in a vast, sun-gilded field. In fact, she’s checking for radio-collared wolves in her nightgown. Such semi-contrived visual incongruities give shape to Laura McPhee’s aesthetic in this solo show. “River of No Return,” its poetic title, refers to a wilderness area in rural Idaho where McPhee spent more than two years taking pictures of the landscape and its inhabitants. Forty large-scale photographs set the Sawtooth Valley in a framework that moves beyond the vocabulary of traditional, sublime Western landscapes to acknowledge new forms of land use—salmon restoration, strip mining, cyanide pools, poaching. One subplot centers on Mattie, a striking teenage girl, who in one picture wears jeans and flip-flops while holding upside-down a magnificent dead turkey almost as tall as she is. In four views of a ranch with a spectacular mountain backdrop, McPhee emphasizes the dramatic role played by mercurial weather in this remote land: Snow on June 21 blooms into flowers a mere seventeen days later. No Starbucks or Wal-Mart mars these stunning landscapes. Instead, the dust risen from a lone passing car creates a scuff across sere fields, and a biologist for the Nez Perce Tribe tracks wolves while camouflaged in a suit of green leaves. Though McPhee romanticizes the land by using formalist poetics, she portrays an American West different from the expansionist ideal of famed nineteenth-century glass-plate photographs—a wilderness in sublime tension with its human populace.