Critics’ Picks

Victoria Sambunaris, Untitled (Tomato Pool, Yellowstone National Park), 2008, color photograph, 39 x 55".

Buffalo

Victoria Sambunaris

Albright-Knox Art Gallery
1285 Elmwood Avenue
October 21, 2011–January 22, 2012

A name like “Kodachrome Basin” for a Utah park speaks to epistemological troubles for the American landscape, many of which have been captured through iconic, lens-based imagery. But what of “actual” spaces not set aside to satisfy aesthetic yearnings—pipeline-traversed valleys or superhighway mountain passes? Victoria Sambunaris’s task, as seen in her current solo show, is to work around powerful photographic and cinematic precessions, and she does so partially by anchoring each landscape with built interventions—pipelines and train tracks give scale, social significance, and presentness to these spaces. People are conspicuously absent in her large color prints, but trucks and railcars mark human presence—they are intermediary machines shaping these landscapes one trailer or hopper at a time. Their impressions are found in most of the works shown here; images of homogeneous shipping containers and ore cars are accompanied by rails that barely fit a narrow canyon, and the truck-wide terraces of strip mines.

By showing the environment as neither pristine nor obviously devastated, Victoria Sambunaris avoids romanticizing it. She posits landscape elements that contradict expectations—a US-Mexico border fence has the formal presence of an Earthwork, natural pools look like Superfund sites, and uranium tailings masquerade as geologic phenomena.

At the heart of this exhibition is an “ephemera” gallery that includes maps, vintage tour books, geologic specimens, and Sambunaris’s journals. Hundreds of study photos give clues to her selective process while revealing what every tourist eventually learns—that snapshot images diminish the landscape and fail to capture its grandeur. It’s also difficult to take a “bad” picture of these dynamic spaces, but at this size, mesas, lakes, and skies become leveled and inadequate. This room’s artifacts and studies help the viewer to pinpoint the artist’s accomplishment in her grand prints; namely, that she grounds the “eternal,” or at least the “geologic,” in our specific time. This temporal scaling marks the work with a credibility that complements her alluring magnitudes and framings.