New York

Caio Reisewitz, Casa Canoas, 2013, C-print on Diasec, 70 7/8 × 99 1/4".

Caio Reisewitz, Casa Canoas, 2013, C-print on Diasec, 70 7/8 × 99 1/4".

Caio Reisewitz

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

Caio Reisewitz, Casa Canoas, 2013, C-print on Diasec, 70 7/8 × 99 1/4".

The works in this survey of Caio Reisewitz’s photography, organized by Christopher Phillips, could be grouped into three categories: those that focused on the Brazil-based artist’s native country, on what he calls its “places of power”; those that focused on that nation’s rain forests, which have their own peculiar power; and those that focused on China, where he attends to people more than to places. In Brazil, Reisewitz sets up a contrast between old and venerable places of power, as in Ataide, 2008, which portrays the Saint Francis of Assisi church in the city of Ouro Preto, and new, sleekly modern places of power, such as the building in Ministério das Relações Exteriores (Palácio do Itamaraty) (Ministry of External Relations [Itamaraty Palace]), 2005. He shows us the entire ceiling of the church, where heavenly figures fill the space of a huge mural, and the empty halls of the palace, where no figures dare disturb its sleek geometric clarity. In both cases, the architecture overwhelms, suggesting humanity is permanently trapped in it liked a caged animal. Yet there is also a difference: Power in colonial Brazil seemingly had a more welcoming face, architecturally speaking, than power in modern Brazil, where it masks itself in abstract anonymity and seamless indifference. Pure abstraction is the new palatial sacred art, and modern buildings are the colonial palaces of today.

Reisewitz’s rain-forest photographs—like the architectural photographs, the prints are usually magnificently large, with some small ones interspersed—supposedly deal with the exploitation of these ecosystems by human beings, but humans don’t fare too well in them. Though a few images depict ecological destruction—he shows us a field of stumps, with some trees still smoldering—generally Reisewitz presents the forests intact, suggesting that they are a symbol of the integrity and wholesomeness that humans lack. In the photographer’s depictions of the remnants of the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest), which once covered Brazil’s east coast, the foliage is a lush, glistening green; it evokes life-giving fertility. Reisewitz seems to deplore human presence: See, for instance, Jaraguá VIII, 2009, with its pathetically isolated human figures in a junglelike clearing. (The work also leaves one wondering whether the photographer is aware of research suggesting just how mythical the forest primeval is: Pre-Columbian societies, it seems, managed the rain forest intensively, planting trees among those that grew naturally and using various enrichment techniques to create vast tracts of the famously productive soil known as terra preta.) Perhaps Carutapera, 2012, is emblematic: A dazzling red flower—the vivid hue unexpected amid the usual green—appears on a brown branch above brightly churning water, the light purifying the blossom into a heavenly substance. For Reisewitz, nature is the new cathedral.

In China things change. The China photographs, most here from 2010, are all small collages composed of small figures and small houses. In one, mountains set behind a vast stretch of farmland appear as substanceless ghosts, a primordial paradise lost to modern needs. More pointedly and surreally, in the collage Yangshou II, 2010, a giant hand with red fingernails seems to descend upon a crowd who worshipfully face it while standing in a garbage dump. We see their backs—they are faceless—as they are hypnotically held in the hand’s grip. We’ve moved from the wasteland of burned-out nature to the wasteland of tyrannical society, and the pessimism that’s implicit in Reisewitz’s glorious nature photographs has become assertively manifest.

Donald Kuspit