New York

Michael Ashkin

Andrea Rosen Gallery

“Drive Route 1 and 9 from Metuchen to the Holland Tunnel. Do this from South to North late in the afternoon on a sunny day to catch the full effect of the light on the multi-colored signs and roadside architecture. Make sure that . . . you stay on Truck Route 1 and 9 into Kearny. This last leg takes you over two rusted drawbridges into Jersey City, taking a turn past my favorite carpet store where several mutilated statues of loggers stand outside.” Michael Ashkin’s idea of a picturesque road trip may be a little closer to Tony Soprano’s than most people’s, but at least you could say, based on this extract from a 2001 interview with Jeff Rian, that he is precise with his directions.

Ashkin’s fifth solo show in New York consisted of eight sets of small gelatin silver prints, framed or pinned directly to the wall in simple grid arrangements, and a selection of short textual fragments, collectively titled “Notes Toward Desolation.” Ashkin is drawn to those territories of the contemporary American landscape—and of New Jersey’s economic wastelands in particular—that exist between authorized destinations. The exhibition’s centerpiece, Untitled (New Jersey Meadowlands Project), 2000–2001, which was commissioned for Documenta 11, typifies this focus. A parade of rain-soaked industrial parks, twisted chain-link fences, abandoned construction sites, and uninviting footbridges, the piece constitutes a visual index of marginalization and abandonment that remains perversely beautiful.

In a text accompanying this imagery, Ashkin traces his fascination with the Meadowlands—the lowlands on either side of the Hackensack River described in National Geographic as “one of the least reputable landscapes on earth”—with its very indeterminacy, with the impossibility of attributing to it any consistent mood or condition. He appreciates the area’s sense of possibility, even when this carries with it a frisson of danger. “Trespassing is prohibited,” he writes, “and one assumes that those who do trespass are exempt from normal moral codes. Lone men wandering these sites are prone to unpredictable behavior.” There is an echo here of the dystopian interzones described in J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island and Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things: points in urban space where the fabric of civilization gives way and inhabitants are thrust into a future that appears more akin to the distant past.

The work of Robert Smithson, in particular his 1967 photo essay The Monuments of Passaic, is a regularly evoked precursor to Ashkin’s project. But where the fallout of environmental exploitation as imaged by Smithson stood in for a broad set of ideas about the social construction of landscape and the universal nature of entropy, Ashkin’s modest studies appear more personally felt in their commemoration of societal neglect. For the past ten years, the artist has exhibited tabletop dioramas made from plaster and resin and garnished with hobby-shop models. By sticking to a similarly restricted scale in his photography, he continues to resist the sublime and grandiose, even when his rubble-strewn yards and stockpiled concrete blocks, lent a kind of dignity by Ashkin’s somber treatment, take on the aspect of historical ruins.

Ashkin also visits California to poke around the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation and Villa Hermosa, Palm Springs. But what he finds there—barren rock piles, empty swimming pools, palm trees that look more like weeds than signifiers of lush exoticism—brings any thoughts of escape, or even variety, crashing down. Proving himself adept at finding the cloud enfolding any silver lining, Ashkin skirts the edge of self-parody, but his single-mindedness pays off as the web of detail in each scene parallels the operation of memory itself. As he puts it, “There are no vacant lots.”

Michael Wilson