Approaching rainstorm, Wupatki National Monument, AZ
Tuesday, February 13, 2001
By DAVID PAGEL, Special To The Times
"Dual Visions of the American West: Photographs by MacDuff Everton and David Muench" is two exhibitions in one, for two reasons: First, either half of this engaging display of more than 60 color prints at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art could stand on its own as a solo show. From the foyer, which presents a tantalizing sampling of each artist's work, a door on the left leads to Everton's panoramic photographs of the legendary landscape that makes up a large part of America, both geographically and mythologically. A door on the right opens onto another handsomely installed gallery, which features Muench's lush, color-saturated pictures. Many of these intimately scaled images swoop in for dazzling close-ups of plants, rocks and rivers, whose rich textures and vivid details are so gorgeous that you have to look even more closely to see that they're real.
Second, the two-in-one show invites viewers to see all of its works in one of two ways. You can look at Everton's and Muench's photographs as if they are pretty pictures, technically masterful depictions of subjects so familiar that they border on being clichés. Neither photographer begrudges casual viewers one of the simple pleasures of civilized life: whiling away an afternoon in a museum, looking at images that let you get away from it all.
But there's more to these carefully composed pictures than such pleasant and worthy diversions. You can also see them as a sustained meditation on photography's capacity to embody time. Paired, the works by the Santa Barbara-based artists outline profoundly different ways of looking at--and living in--the world.
Neither photographer shies away from the spectacular vistas that have made the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Big Sur and the Badlands high-priority tourist destinations. With parking lots and scenic overlooks jampacked with camera-toting visitors, it's not surprising that most serious photographers cast a critical eye on these sites, turning their cameras on visitors or turning away altogether. In contrast, Everton and Muench bravely go where many have gone before, defying the odds by making substantial photographs of overexposed subjects.
Everton is a master at making the drama of nature appear as if it happens every day. It does, it's just that most people don't have time to see it because we live in cities and work in buildings. Weaned on TV, our eyes are attuned to the abrupt shifts of channel changes. As a culture, we favor clear-cut conclusions: "Closure" is our holy grail. Aesthetically, we like pictures with punch, images in which everything is clear in an instant.
Rather than making time stand still, Everton's photographs make you feel its sweep. Their beauty is accumulative.
For example, "Approaching Rain Storm, Wupatki National Monument, Arizona" (1990) and "Approaching El Nino, Big Sur, California" (1998) have the presence of time-lapse film sequences. Each seems to have compressed so many befores and afters into its form that standing in front of either feels as if you're right there, anxiously waiting to get drenched as a mighty storm builds on the horizon and then rolls in swiftly.
Everton's pictures do not stop at their edges. Emphasizing the expansiveness of the landscape, he never suggests that his tripod has been placed in a special, one-of-a-kind spot. This casual, any-place-in-the-general-vicinity attitude is embodied most vividly by "Ridge, Mushroom Cloud, Great Sand Dunes Monument, Colorado" (1999), in which a sand dune in the foreground blocks a large part of the view. All of Everton's works give form to the feeling that although you're looking at a pretty terrific scene, there's so much more out there that you shouldn't be too pleased with yourself.
A Skeptical Approach to Dramatic Spectacles
Through his lens, even sunrises and sunsets look measured and ordinary. In two images made in South Dakota, the sun crosses the horizon without fanfare, as if that moment of the day were no more--or less--significant than any other.
Too sensible not to be suspicious of highly dramatized spectacles, Everton's art gives equal time to the magisterial and the mundane. Tempering one with the other, his realism is that of the long haul, in which life's ups and downs balance out. As a group, his photographs embody a type of plain-spoken truthfulness that seems understated and slow, especially to people accustomed to fast talk and big-city hyperbole.
In contrast, Muench transforms nature into a star-studded drama shot by a cinematographer with an eye for highlights. Using visual tricks that amplify the intensity of various aspects of the landscape, his sumptuous photographs combine the crystalline clarity of newfangled imaging systems with the knock-your-socks-off wallop of special-effects wizardry.
Artistry is everything in Muench's pictures, many of which resemble abstract paintings. "Sierra Forest, Sequoia, California" (1997) transforms the rusty red trunks of massive pine trees and the soft green tones of the forest background into a stripe painting. The contrasts in "Spanish Moss" (1998) are even stronger, with fiery orange maple leaves appearing to float in the shallow space before a wall of moss-covered trees.
To-die-for details are Muench's stock in trade. His glowing images serve them up in abundance, with each print outdoing the last. Poor naked nature pales in comparison to his perfumed nudes.
The picture plane in "Cobble Mosaic, McDonald Creek, Glacier, Montana" (1984) is parallel to the surface of a shallow stream, whose bed is covered by smoothly rounded rocks. The water is so clear it's invisible. You only know it's there because its swift current distorts the rocks, magnifying some parts more than others and causing them all to appear to be liquid.
Such disorienting theatrics occur in nearly all of Muench's photographs, most of which pair objects in the extreme foreground with horizon lines far off in the background, often miles away or more. To take in these pictures, your eye flies back and forth between the world of deep space and that of close-ups, defying time by traveling at supersonic speed.
In other works, long exposures transform cascading mountain streams into cottony clouds that appear to have settled in rocky ravines. Far from drawing time out, however, these trippy images swallow it up, making for captivating moments whose appeal is immediate--giddy, dizzying and thrilling.
Before Muench's intensely focused images, everything outside the frame fades away. In contrast to Everton's even-keeled realism, Muench's brand of pumped-up verisimilitude is keyed to moments so extraordinary you think you're dreaming.
An inspired pairing, "Dual Visions of the American West" travels through the same landscape only to take viewers to worlds so distinct from one another that they might as well be on different planets.
* "Dual Visions of the American West: Photographs by MacDuff Everton and David Muench," Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara, (805) 963-4364, through March 25. Closed Mondays.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times