New York

Frank Gohlke

Bonni Benrubi Gallery

Frank Gohlke’s photographs are characterized by carefully selected details set against a grand, virtually infinite space; this signature style is also his means of mastering the contradictions of nature. Gohlke maps the same Midwestern/Western territory—Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas (with Mount Saint Helens thrown in)—that the social realists of the ’30s did, but his raw vision of the land is even more austere (and less ideological) than theirs. As his excruciating close-ups of houses destroyed by tornadoes indicate, nature easily wrecks the best-laid plans. Gohlke’s landscape is a bleak, weirdly hermetic, inherently untamable tundra. Again and again in these photographs, sublime terrains, punctuated by seemingly pointless traces of human presence, seem to mock humankind’s attempt to inhabit them. Much as Pascal found his anxiety echoed in cosmic space, Gohlke finds what D. H. Lawrence called America’s cold-bloodedness, its denial of the sensual, echoed in these stark landscapes. He depicts these spaces as a thing apart, but, at the same time, the photographs suggest that, more than we care to admit, they are also the authentic territories of our souls.

As Gohlke’s 1984 Texas Memories #8—a picture of the ranch house where his mother spent part of her childhood—reflects, there is, at times, an oblique personal dimension to this work. Gohlke wants to reach back into memory without sacrificing immediacy, and in some photographs the former seems to soften the latter, though his toughrnindedness returns when he confronts nature’s heartlessness straight on. And sometimes, as in his photographs of grain elevators, the manmade seems “naturalized” by association, as absolute as any other part of the landscape. Le Corbusier considered the grain elevator to be among the best of what American architecture had to offer and Gohlke seems to agree, if for a different reason: for him, the grain elevator’s structural simplicity renders it an integral part of the natural environment.

Perhaps Gohlke’s photographs are memento mori to a vanishing American landscape—one he hopes to rescue from both sentimental and commercial exploitation—but I prefer to think of them as primitivist in spirit, formally as well as conceptually. That is, Gohlke seems to be hungering for a desert experience to remove him completely from the civilization the ranch houses represent, by which he is still tempted, however unconsciously.

Donald Kuspit