San Francisco

Michael Kenna

Wirtz Art

For some artists, the passage of twenty years encompasses several distinct bodies of work. Others, like photographer Michael Kenna, apparently find change less compelling than achieving a kind of perfection within relatively narrow parameters. As revealed by these small, black and white images, Kenna’s work centers—and always has—around a genre best described as landscape-as-still-life. Off-season views of shorelines or rolling hills, parks or cityscapes, exude a kind of cool, autumnal melancholy. In the crepuscular light spreading over land, water, or buildings, it always seems to be late, or maybe very, very early. Forms silhouetted against the horizon fade into the misty distance in diminishing shades of gray, under lugubrious skies full of soft, undramatic clouds. No matter what time it is, though, there is never a breath of wind. Or, for that matter, air of any kind.

Despite the absence of human beings in these pictures, something—whether it be a group of pilings, a fence, or a neatly-clipped bush—always serves as a reminder that these places are not wild, but occupied. Some of Kenna’s most beautiful images, in fact, are of the 18th-century French folly garden, Le Desert de Retz: arguably, the acme of that kind of civilized, mediated experience of nature. Even Kenna's (equally beautiful) pictures of a nuclear power station seem coolly formal and profoundly civilized, despite their potentially brutish subject matter.

From topiary to cooling towers, the elements of these pictures express a kind of Old World, postindustrial ennui: the antithesis, really, of the sublime (although the mood here is both Romantic and determinedly esthetic). Things and places are seen from a distance, as if they are the memories of a lost power and grandeur, only the exquisite shadows of which remain.

It could be argued that the world Kenna portrays is merely a reiteration of the photographic version of Modernism: too far away and formal in nature to be of value in or to our time. The only response to such an assertion is that all photographs are fictions—not just attractive ones like these. Furthermore, despite the dreamy appearance of these landscapes, there is a kind of drama unfolding here—more subdued than soap-operatic, but drama nonetheless. In far too many of these pictures to be merely coincidental, the eye is deliberately led into the gracefully dissolving middle distance. After a while, these receding roads and steeply angled buildings begin to look like the scenic backdrops for some fin-de-siècle tragicomedy, with a humor more dark than light. In the course of the play, little more than a pleasurable frisson is promised, but that small, melancholic thrill is definitely delivered more often than not.

Maria Porges