PRINT January 2000


Anthony Hernandez’s “Pictures for Rome,” 1998–99, bear no resemblance to the familiar images of that city. Venturing into the interiors of abandoned schoolhouses, hospitals, and never-finished office buildings, Hernandez’s camera peruses these late-twentieth-century Roman ruins as if examining strange treasures from a lost twilight world. Whether framing eerily silent scenes such as an underground parking structure flooded with water, a curving hallway of ghostly offices, or the dust marks where pictures once hung on a wall, his meticulous compositions are closely observed and richly detailed—to the point where the prints, at 40 by 40 inches, appear disconcertingly physical, almost like sculptural slices of the environments they depict. But rather than convey a monumental solidity, these photographs conjure an unstable landscape of possible readings and associations, as if divining signs in the entrails of cast-off buildings.

Hernandez has taken pictures of similarly desolate and haunted places since 1986, often striking a harsher, more directly confrontational note than in the Rome series. Surveying the debris left behind at shooting ranges, construction sites, and the improvised encampments of the homeless, these earlier photographs focus on scattered details—discarded food containers, a battered doll—that make up a microlandscape of clues and visual intrigue. And just as the detective story classically revolves around anterior events, Hernandez’s images evoke absent characters whose actions we can only reconstruct by mentally animating the played-out scenes he shows us. His pictures ask us, in other words, to intimately inhabit spaces that we might not normally wish to occupy. What makes this an inviting prospect is that the photographs are often seductively, if disturbingly, beautiful, suggesting the work of a wayward forensic photographer whose aesthetic sense occasionally overrides his investigatory agenda.

Hernandez’s “Landscapes for the Homeless” series, 1988–91, shot around Los Angeles mostly in the early ’90s, chronicles the domestic refuse—a cardboard mattress, cooking gear, clothing, and cigarette butts—of people whose “homes” lie under freeway overpasses and amid the overgrown weeds of vacant lots. Though utterly and elegantly deadpan, Hernandez’s “Landscapes” also exude an unexpected aura of violence, as if the disarray they document were formed in the aftermath of an explosion. Rather than invite our sympathy—as do more straightforward portraits of the homeless—these pictures prompt us to experience some of the turmoil wreaked on an individual by his social invisibility.

In the Rome series, Hernandez’s work leaps into more visually alluring territory as a number of these photographs push their mundane subject matter just past the threshold of recognizability. In some pictures, spatial uncertainty vies with photographic clarity so that you may be unsure, at first glance, whether you’re examining the complex geome-tries of a flat surface or staring straight up an unfinished elevator shaft. A number of other images isolate specific objects so that they take on the abstract quality of enlarged details, enabling banal light fixtures to conjure the strange forms of Karl Blossfeldt’s plant photographs. And because of the long exposure times required in these dimly lit places, certain colors, particularly around the green portion of the spectrum, are exaggerated beyond the “normal” way our eyes would see them, lending a disorienting lusciousness to the stripped-down spaces and materials that the artist explores.

Because Hernandez appreciates such sites as works in progress, his camera reveals them not as sealed exhibits of urban collapse, but as active sites of deconstruction: There is a sense of abandon in these abandoned places, a suggestion of illicit transformations, of an infra-architecture at once degenerating and reconfiguring itself before our eyes (a tender irony inflects his image of an architectural office that seems, literally, to have gone to seed). None of this would come across if Hernandez took pictures to draw conclusions, but fortunately he takes them to mark the spaces of his own curiosity, and his visual radar is sharp enough to capture these loci on film in a way that enables us to see through the filter of his measured wonder.

At the same time, Hernandez’s acute sensitivity to the aesthetic potential of various materials, from spiderwebs to half-built cinder-block walls, results in images that seemingly portray sculptural objects from a post-povera scene, or environmental installations that evoke a range of references from Giorgio De Chirico to Robert Irwin, from Minimalism to scatter art. Not merely tokens of a postmodern self-consciousness about art history, these unexpected resemblances are yet another means by which Hernandez keeps us on our toes, leaving us feeling not quite sure of what criteria we’re meant to use in examining his pictures.

By photographing “sculptures” that exist outside galleries, Hernandez ultimately implies that our ideas about art belong to the larger aesthetic terrain of the everyday. Part of that terrain is revealed in the traces of ongoing human activity shown in these photographs: signs of vandalism and graffiti, and also evidence of habitation, of the covert lives led by immigrant squatters and economic refugees who have entered these spaces illegally (as Hernandez himself has). Their existence is evoked in absentia by several pictures featuring figurative elements—a cluster of bluish handprints or fragments of pornographic images that still cling to the wall, taped up by a (presumably) former inhabitant.

The echo of recent departure, displacement, and loss in such images accounts, in part, for their understated power. By conducting his reconnaissance after hours, as it were, and chronicling the physical ruins, rather than the human victims, left by capitalism’s economic short-circuits, Hernandez leaves us haunted by the cluelike status of his photographs. It is a strategy, part aesthetic, part critical, that also allows Hernandez to straddle boundaries between photographic genres in a way that few artists have the sense of balance to manage.

Underlying this approach is an abiding imperative to look where no one else is looking. In Hernandez’s hands, this is a code with aesthetic and moral implications for artist and viewer alike. His pictures ask us to reassess how we interpret the evidence we find in images, and they impel us not only to hone our vision, but to sharpen our ability to wonder and to become curious before worlds that we routinely overlook and that merit and need this response far more than our sympathy.

Ralph Rugoff is a writer and freelance curator currently living in London. He is co-curator, with Lisa Corrin, of “The Greenhouse Effect,” opening in April at the Serpentine Gallery in London.