New York

Walter Niedermayr

Robert Miller Gallery

Walter Niedermayr’s photographs of the Dolomite Mountains in Italy have been widely shown throughout Europe, but it wasn’t until this year that the Italian artist had his first solo exhibition in the US. It consisted of images recently shot at ski resorts in the French and Italian Alps—a region subjected to a chain of deadly avalanches just a couple of weeks after the show opened. The disasters were called a freak of nature, but having seen this show, it was tempting to view them more as a cosmic warning.

Niedermayr’s work registers the costs of modern tourism, reining in irony and absurdity in favor of a more subtle yet jarring formal effect. Displayed as large-format panoramas, with anywhere from two to nine framed images in a strip or grid, the photographs do not line up perfectly but present slightly shifted perspectives and varied colors and exposures: The works are composite landscapes that refuse to cohere into a seamless view. Niedermayr, who has worked since 1990 as an architectural photographer in his hometown of Bolzano, Italy, has developed a disjointed aesthetic that mimics human alterations to the environs while it magnifies their effect on harsh yet fragile environments—some of the works here seem almost like abstract paintings or drawings. The results are fascinating, as well as unflattering to one of the world’s most picturesque and heavily trafficked regions. The harsh slope of gray-brown rocks in the diptych Stilfserjoch I, 1997, seems less mountainscape than moonscape, its terrain punctuated by the cement towers and cables of a gondola, huge metal scaffolds strung with power lines, and a number of other poles. The dizzying view, almost as if seen from a helicopter, takes in tiny sunbathers perched on rocks like stranded aliens; at right, a lone snow-boarder schusses down a deserted chute of snow.

While most of the works in the show highlighted the infrastructure that has helped to bring unprecedented crowds to the Alps, three pieces in the smallest gallery horned in on the crowds themselves. Yet there was still an anthropological distance: Dressed in loud recreational wear, the tourists mostly appeared as colorful flecks sprinkled over expansive white fields; many wore the international uniform of shorts and T-shirts and wandered about as if they were at Disneyland or the Vatican. In the triptych Kitzsteinhorn VI, 1997, a meandering line of skiers and spectators roughly parallels the ragged gray ridge above them. In the left panel, the mountains become imposing; there, a kid in a “Space Jam” baseball cap trudges along, carrying nothing more than a yellow plastic bag (a makeshift seat for the snow). In the middle panel, a mom in sneakers with no socks tends to her kids; and at right, where people are most plentiful, the focal point is a coatless family of four, resting their rumps on a shiny red bench.

Sobering rather than preachy, Niedermayr’s eerie photographs show how the high reaches of the Alps, a once-distant and often deadly foe, are now attainable to everybody. While the mountains in his images are overexposed both aesthetically (sometimes almost dissolving into the background) and metaphorically, their vivid visitors are thrown into high relief, more as novelty seekers than nature lovers. Niedermayr dispassionately exposes the parasitic relationship between man and mountain, with works that rival the most sophisticated arguments of environmentalists.

Julie Caniglia

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