New York

Mark Ruwedel

Yossi Milo Gallery

At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, there were 35,085 miles of operable railroad track in the United States. Eight years later that number had doubled. Midway between these dates, on May 10, 1869, a golden spike joined the rails of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was near this site that photographer Mark Ruwedel was inspired to begin his series “Westward the Course of Empire,” 1994–2007. This exhibition brought together seventy-five of the small black-and-white photographs, which document the railroad lines, now abandoned, that knit together our country (and Canada) in an unprecedented wave of industrial ambition and governmental largesse. For centuries to come we will be untangling the ramifications of the historical process he charts.

Ruwedel is keenly aware of the palimpsest of physical interventions and imaginative representations that have altered both the landscape of North America’s western half and our perceptions of it. Anyone who depicts these arid plains and craggy mountains today necessarily enters into dialogue with a legion of antecedents, from late-nineteenth-century geographic-survey photographers to Earthworks artists who fanned out across the West a century later; from environmental pioneers like naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams to contemporary writers like John McPhee; and from atomic scientists seeking uninhabited test sites to real-estate developers hoping to turn ranchland into exurban subdivisions. Ruwedel’s carefully composed images, made with a large-format camera, bear traces of this complex legacy. In the foreground of Deep Creek #2, 1999, for example, a gate in a barbed-wire fence carries United States Air Force signs warning visitors to keep out and identifying the flat territory as a bombing and gunnery range. The lone wooden railroad tie in Carson and Colorado #6, 1997, is complemented by at least seven enormous upturned satellite dishes visible in the background.

The photographs also enter into dialogue with visual strategies familiar to viewers of contemporary art. Ruwedel’s installation of the photographs in small grids by type (tunnel mouths, cuts through rock formations, trestle bridges) recalls Bernd and Hilla Becher’s rigidly sorted documentation of heavy industry. So many straight lines proceeding toward the horizon, denuded first of vegetation and, decades later, of the wooden ties and steel rails themselves, bring to mind the photographic record of Richard Long’s walks in the landscape.

Despite these connections to other practices, Ruwedel’s photographs, with their magnificent placid compositions and unexpected details, encourage one to savor their intrinsic allure. In San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, 2003, a trestle bridge spans the mouth of a canyon like a dark spiderweb. The tunnel entrance in Columbia and Western #21, 2000, seems like a portal to another world. The concrete pylons depicted in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific #30, 2005, stand like an industrial-era Stonehenge in an otherwise empty landscape. Other photographs emphasize how nature has reclaimed some lost ground, subsuming humankind’s hubristic gestures within an inexorable vegetal creep. The give-and-take between man and nature will continue for as long as we persist. “Westward the Course of Empire” is an uncommonly sensitive survey of the evidential traces of that relationship’s recent history and a formidable aesthetic statement.

Brian Sholis