New York

Darren Almond

Matthew Marks Gallery

Inspired by the life and work of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, Darren Almond’s recent exhibition was a study in strategic contrasts, an orchestrated dialogue between beauty and decay designed to evoke both the lyricism and the melancholy characteristic of the late Nobel Prize–winner’s artistic outlook. Pairing a suite of wildly gorgeous color photographs of the California coast with a series of somber black-and-white shots of a winter landscape in Siberia—where Brodsky spent eighteen months in a labor camp before being exiled in 1972—the show also included a selection of Almond’s painted aluminum signs, the centerpiece of which featured lines from Brodsky’s “A Part of Speech” (1975–76), in which the writer contemplates the homeland he left behind.

London-based Almond is a prolific neo-Conceptualist whose diverse projects have frequently engaged issues of time, place, and memory, and the ways in which various forms of mediation may be harnessed to emphasize the instability of each. In Brodsky, Almond has clearly chosen a productive touchstone for his investigations. Concerned with questions of morality and mortality, the poet often deployed his language as a kind of bridge between a present lived in exile in the US and a past spent in a land that was distant yet vividly remembered for both its richness and cruelty.

Arrayed around the koanlike passage from Brodsky’s celebrated work (“Only sound needs echo and dreads its lack. / A glance is accustomed to no glance back.”), Almond’s photographs demonstrate a classically skilled eye for landscape at the service of a meditative conceptual program. His understated black-and-white photographs were all drawn from the series “Norilsk”: 69 Parallel 1 and 2 (all works 2005) focus on a stand of barren winter trees shot against a sky so dead and white that it almost erases the horizon, while several works titled Minus 60,000 feature different views of a ruined railway trestle. The chaos of the broken timber bridge, portrayed from vantages that destabilize scale and depth, provides an elegiac marker for the deeper reality of the site: sixty thousand-odd Stalin-era prison laborers died building the railroad.

In contrast to the restraint with which these images invoke the suffering of both Brodsky as an individual and the Russian people as a group, Almond’s California pictures from his ongoing “Fullmoon” series, 2000–, are almost implausibly beautiful, providing (in keeping with Brodsky’s own aesthetic) a kind of metaphysical counterpoint to the terrestrial misery implied by their companions. Extra-long exposures shot by the light of the full moon, these landscapes were taken, like many of the previous images in the series, at locations made famous by other artists—in this case, the areas of northern California first documented by nineteenth-century Bay Area photographer Carleton Watkins.

Several are so eerily scenic that they suggest Hollywood FX—especially Fullmoon@Burns Bay, in which a distant waterfall spills into a storybook cove, and Fullmoon@Pacific, in which rocky outcroppings emerge from what appears to be a fog bank but is in fact the moving current, like the surface of a distant planet imagined by Roger Dean. Yet the most modest images here are perhaps even more evocative of Brodsky than the preternaturally ravishing ones, suggesting not just the poetry of the world but also the transitory nature of our contact with it. This is nowhere more evident than in California North Star, in which the artist’s exposure tracks the wheeling of the night sky above a row of ancient trees, recalling another emblematic passage from “A Part of Speech”: “As for the stars, they are always on. / That is, one appears, then others adorn the inklike / sphere. That’s the best way from there to look upon / here: well after hours, blinking.”

Jeffrey Kastner