New York

Kim Keever

Kinz + Tillou Fine Art

Kim Keever’s ethereal color photographs of constructed landscape dioramas are undeniably seductive—a gaggle of ladies-who-lunch cooed admiringly over them on my visit to the New Yorker’s recent exhibition—but their purportedly “subversive” edge is blunt indeed. Keever employs a nice balance of the sophisticated and the jury-rigged, and sets up some mildly entertaining confusions of scale, but his images’ hazy visual atmospherics ultimately lack a tempering conceptual lucidity. An adjacent exhibition of paintings by Hudson River School artists such as Alfred Thompson Bricher, John William Casilear, and Hermann Herzog hammered home the photographs’ most obvious historical touchstone, but Keever’s “update” feels no less programmatic.

An introductory wall text and studio shot—an image that is in some ways more satisfying than any of the works—gave the game away before it had started. Depicting a large glass aquarium housing a passage of wooded countryside rendered in highly convincing miniature and submerged in cloudy water, the documentary snap primed one to expect the slightly unexpected. The image of the glassed-in setup surrounded by a clutter of lights, gels, and camera gear reveals that what appear at first to depict lush pastoral scenes of silvery lakes, mist-shrouded valleys, and snowcapped mountains in fact record scenes from the artist’s imagination that have been realized at intimate, bonsai-tree scale.

Whether this added layer of artifice adds a significant layer of affect, however, is debatable. Keever’s project does have echoes in contemporary art: Mariele Neudecker made a minor name for herself a decade ago with a similar combination of subject and technique (though in her case the models themselves were shown), while another German artist, Thomas Demand, also achieved canonical status by photographing scale models (albeit with a very different agenda). But as the press release points out, Keever’s nineteenth-century precursors were hardly averse to blending fact and contrivance in their own visions of the quasi sublime. It is difficult, then, to see how the contemporary artist’s project builds substantially on those of his precursors; the photographs’ ship-in-a-bottle, magic-lantern tricksiness suggests a critique of sorts—of the way we still tend to treat nature as something external to ourselves, perhaps, or of the innate artificiality and politicization of any and all landscape depictions—but it comes wrapped in such a cute, knowing package that the power of its argument is diminished.

Still, it is possible to enjoy Keever’s images without the rather simplistic flavor of their irony interfering too much. Think of them in terms of straightforward retro-kitsch and the terrain they detail seems more solid—if also more familiar. For viewers with an appreciation of the brilliant Thomas Kinkade and the embarrassing Caspar David Friedrich (or is it vice versa?), photographs like Forest 68c, 2007, with its silhouetted trees framing a powder-blue sky, or Wildflowers 52i, 2008, with its fantastical, Technicolor overabundance, will have their charms. And there is an attendant fun in picking out telltale signs of the images’ true genesis, such as the unlikely tilts of the distant trees in Sunset 44d, 2007, the distinctly handmade look of the rocks in West 38g, 2007, and the patina of surface noise that veils almost every print (what look like the results of scratches or dirt on the lens or film are in fact the images of scum-smears on the sides of the two-hundred-gallon tank). Finally, however, these works are clever but ingratiatingly so, as airless as the idealized scenes they present.

Michael Wilson