New York

Florian Maier-Aichen

Hailed by Christopher Bollen as the “anti–Ansel Adams” for eschewing straight photography in, among other things, privileging saturated color, Florian Maier-Aichen is also the Düsseldorf school’s prodigal son. As is oft remarked, Maier-Aichen left Germany to study at the University of California, Los Angeles, in part to divorce himself from the documenting of functionalist architecture and the non-sites of modern industrialism advocated by the Bechers and promulgated in the dispassionate formalism of their many disciples. But his stylized images’ looming monumentality—and to be sure, their own, very different model of formalism—all but return Maier-Aichen to these forsaken points of reference, a situation made clear in his second show at 303 Gallery. In this selection of eleven recent photographs (about half in color and half in black-and-white, with one noteworthy albumen print tossed in for good, complicating measure) of sundry if by no means arbitrary landscapes (e.g., a Swiss alpine pass and the California coast), Maier-Aichen exhumes the repressed, presenting it as simultaneously available and elemental.

Each large-format scene evidences an admixture of photographic techniques, both traditional and digital, and where either begins or ends is not always clear. The disembodied vantage of the sublime Salton Seas (I), 2008, for one, begets mystification of topography and its abiding realism on such grounds. More generally, Maier-Aichen entertains a deeply nonideological position regarding the nature of the photographic image and the illegibility at the level of technical constitution that it engenders. Writing on the occasion of Maier-Aichen’s show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2007, Gil Blank gushed that the photographer had “managed in the last few years to initiate a project that is highly self-aware but doesn’t trap itself in a graveyard of rhetoric, and that is thrilling to behold but ambiguous enough that it never stoops to pandering.” Such openness renders Maier-Aichen’s works essentially mediumistic ciphers that ultimately disavow the meaningfulness of forays into their manufacture. It matters very little to know where, exactly, a hue has been deepened or scale warped; it matters a good deal more to understand Untitled, 2009, for instance, as a work about representation per se, an image of an alpine pass diagonally bisected by an avalanche that cannily unmoors one’s orientation to the snowy picture plane and portrays nature as a kind of mark maker.

While such passages are not decoder-ring-like revelatory—or even admissions of Maier-Aichen’s secret (or not so secret) painterly ambitions—they are nonetheless telling. Untitled (St. Francis Dam), 2009, matches an expansive, seemingly “objective” vista of the onetime failure of American civil engineering (the titular LA dam broke and flooded in 1928, killing hundreds) with a roiling expanse below the midline, a sealike mass of undulating matter punctuated by graphic, Pollock-like splatters and squiggles. Untitled, 2009, an Edenic shot of Big Sur overlaid with almost hallucinogenic patches of coruscating color, seeping out from the paper—an oil spill turned gorgeous prism—and Der Watzmann, 2009, a canny reprise of Caspar David Friedrich that matches an aurora-borealis sky with the eponymous peak appropriated from Friedrich’s painting, play details against one another, the better to undermine any structural logic that might manifest as a result of the medium as such.

Suzanne Hudson