Critics’ Picks

Untitled 696-05, 2005, color photograph, 70 x 95 1/8".

Untitled 696-05, 2005, color photograph, 70 x 95 1/8".

Washington, DC

Richard Misrach

National Gallery of Art West Building
Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
May 25–September 1, 2008

It’s difficult to imagine a better exhibition than this one to enter after the blazing summertime heat of Washington, DC’s mall. Nineteen large-scale chromogenic prints of swimmers and sunbathers in Hawaii immerse viewers in crystalline turquoise water and twilight rippling over horizonless seas. Richard Misrach seems at first to provide six-foot-wide windows from the heavens into the vacation sublime below. Yet this laconic exhibition underscores the artist’s long preoccupation with Edenic landscapes: beautiful but ripe with premonition of the fall. (In this sense, Misrach’s September 11 reference in the wall text is less heavy-handed, although the eerie calm preceding a tsunami feels like a more fitting comparison.) Further compounding the exhibition’s apocalyptic whispers is its title, “On the Beach,” after Nevil Shute’s 1957 nuclear-holocaust novel of the same name, in which the world’s last survivors wait on a beach for the end or take poison with loved ones to hurry it along. Such a reference forces us to reconsider the photographs’ figures. A man dishragging in the shore break could be a bloated, washed-up body; a couple napping back-to-back on the beach with covered heads might never wake up. Most works have only one or a few vacationers overcome in scale by so much sand or sea; water takes over entirely in three photographs hung together in their own gallery. These near monochromes relate to Misrach’s sky studies, and attention to water’s texture and prismatic form conjure projects by Vija Celmins, Roni Horn, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Like vacation snapshots, Misrach’s grand views deliver only part of the story. And like the figures floating through them, these photographs are suspended in a state where reality is muffled and momentarily far away.

The exhibition, inaugurated last fall at the Art Institute of Chicago, will travel to the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle (October 11, 2008–January 18, 2009), and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (May 23–August 16, 2009).