New York

Victoria Sambunaris, Untitled (Farm with workers, Jacumba, CA), 2010, color photograph, 39 x 55". From the series “The Border,” 2009–.

Victoria Sambunaris, Untitled (Farm with workers, Jacumba, CA), 2010, color photograph, 39 x 55". From the series “The Border,” 2009–.

Victoria Sambunaris

Yancey Richardson Gallery

Victoria Sambunaris, Untitled (Farm with workers, Jacumba, CA), 2010, color photograph, 39 x 55". From the series “The Border,” 2009–.

The border between the United States and Mexico has been contested since 1848, when the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended war between the countries. It took survey teams six years just to draw the line, then marked with small obelisks and stone mounds. Disputes arising from population growth and other forms of development necessitated that this survey work be redone in the 1890s, when more than two hundred additional monuments were erected. During the twentieth century, as towns and cities along the border grew, five hundred more markers were dedicated; in recent decades, they have been connected by fences, owing to fears of illegal border crossings. Throughout this history, images have played an important role in the recognition and policing of this boundary, from Arthur Schott’s ink drawings, created for the initial surveys, to contemporary video surveillance footage. Victoria Sambunaris, who drove twenty thousand miles along the border to take the photographs in her new, ongoing series, “The Border,” 2009–, aims to “transcend political, ethical, or environmental ideology.” Yet political questions give these serene, large-scale, mostly uninhabited views a palpable undertow.

What one notices first are the broad swaths of blue sky; the dun-colored Rio Grande River, wending sluggishly across the diptych Untitled (Boquillas del Carmen, Big Bend National Park), 2009; and the striated rock faces of Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon), 2010. The natural environment dwarfs the eighteen-foot-high fence that cuts through several of Sambunaris’s compositions like a rusty scar, and which, contrary to expectation, rarely serves as their primary focus. Sambunaris achieves this effect in part by taking her pictures from elevated vantage points, always situating the ostensible subject of her compositions within a much broader context. Though her work employs the visual clarity of nineteenth-century survey photographers like Timothy H. O’Sullivan, such practitioners served a government that saw the American West’s natural landscape as an untouched site of expansionist fantasy. Arriving more than a century later, Sambunaris can’t help but acknowledge that “the frontier” is now “the border”: Man and machine have transformed this landscape and its meaning, of which the fence is but one manifestation. This sentiment is in line with her recent images of the Alaskan oil pipeline and of western dams and mines, and helps to situate the pictures included here that feature freight trains and industrial-scale farming.

David Taylor, whose photographic series “Working the Line,” 2007–, began with an attempt to photograph all remaining nineteenth-century boundary-marking obelisks, has come to incorporate border patrol agents, migrants, checkpoints, drugs, and guns into his photographs. Despite the fact that such subjects do not appear in her images, and that in some pictures she downplays the fence or even leaves it out altogether, Sambunaris’s series is nonetheless conditioned by political realities. She would no doubt acknowledge this if queried, since each of the eight photographs presented in this exhibition was shot from the American side of the border. For unstated reasons, she has yet to shoot from Mexico. Though she grants viewers visual access to the “other side,” as it were, the fact of her remaining in the US is nonetheless a reminder of what’s at stake in even the most tranquil of her images. Even where there isn’t a fence, as in her magisterial 2010 view of grasslands in Hereford, Arizona, there’s a divide. After all, swim halfway across the Rio Grande River, and you’ve illegally crossed into another country.

Brian Sholis