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The Trouble with Beauty

As Richard Misrach knows, even the horrid can look gorgeous

At first glance, "Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach" appears to be so much exquisite photography for next year's calendar. And it is, almost. In Misrach's case, it's that "almost" that's so intriguing. What is it, exactly, that keeps his stunning photographs of the American desert out of the greeting card category? The exhibit's title gives a clue: could it be that Misrach puts crimes and splendors in the same light, portraying both with a practiced eye for the sublime? Eighteen years in the making, the "Desert Cantos" provide a bedrock narrative of human presence in the desert, with untrammeled landscapes serving as prologue and the aftermath of military activity as epilogue. Nonetheless, the "Cantos" are not the moral tale they sometimes try to be. Rather, they reflect the impassioned, even romantic attention of one man for his infinitely fascinating subject.

A Los Angeles native, Misrach first photographed the American desert in 1979, taking portraits that would later become part of Desert Canto XIII: The Inhabitants and Desert Canto XIV: The Visitors, and landscapes that were eventually part of Desert Canto I: The Terrain. The project has resulted in six books and countless exhibits, and "Crimes and Splendors" will travel as far as Hawaii. The first four of Misrach's cantos -- The Terrain, The Event (a space shuttle landing), The Flood and The Fires -- correspond to the four basic elements of ancient times: earth, air, fire and water. Misrach says he borrowed the structure of his work from poets such as Dante and Ezra Pound, who used cantos, or "songs," as a way to divide their longer works. Each of Misrach's photos is like a verse whose meaning is amplified by the others in its canto, which is itself but a part of a greater whole. Houston's Museum of Fine Arts is the first to exhibit selections from all 18 of Misrach's cantos together, providing an extraordinary opportunity to view the project as it was conceived.

While the cantos structure isn't rigid -- for example, the cantos are not displayed in numerical order -- it does give Misrach a fair amount of control over the way his photos are absorbed. Viewed alone, cantos such as Desert Seas, Deserts, Clouds (Non-Equivalents) and Skies are simply examples of splendid, if arid, natural beauty. But in the grand scheme of Misrach's cantos, acknowledgment of natural beauty is just as important as acknowledgment of death (Canto XX: The Pit) and of both human and natural destruction (The Fires). Even if you view certain cantos alone, you know they're part of a whole. With one canto, Misrach can zoom in on some catastrophe or event, then in another back up so we don't miss the sunset. The cantos also make the best use of his talents as a photographer -- he is Ansel Adams one minute, Walker Evans the next, with his overall aesthetic that of National Geographic.

The exhibit begins with [Prologue], a set of pairs of photographs that juxtapose American desert scenes with similar foreign ones. The first places the pyramid and sphinx of a Las Vegas casino side by side with the pyramids at Giza. In the first photo, the foreground is a blacktop road and the middle ground a row of condos, with the tip of the steel and glass pyramid visible in the background. The atmosphere and allocation of space in the second photo is nearly identical: the foreground is a tennis court; the midground, a strip of city dwellings; and the ancient pyramids jut up against the horizon. The casino has borrowed an exotic desert theme from Egypt, which in turn has borrowed the trappings of Western civilization: high-rises and tennis. The photos introduce one of Misrach's principal concerns: the various ways humans try to make the desert -- inhospitable in its lack of support for dense populations, yet attractive because of the possibilities suggested by wide open space -- bloom.

In The Event, Misrach has photographed not a space shuttle landing, exactly, but the brouhaha that surrounds a shuttle landing, from the fleet of mobile homes that arrive and park obediently in rows to the straight line etched across the empty playa, up against which onlookers cram to watch the shuttle touch down several miles away. The photographs contrast the random location of the spectacle with its arbitrary structure. In another canto, The Event II, Misrach visits an annual artists' gathering in the Black Rock desert of Nevada. Here, the participants respond creatively to the wide-open space: they build a giant wooden man to be torched and play a giant croquet game using cars as mallets. Misrach photographs both organized Events with the same studious, visually witty approach, as if to say that, from the point of view of the desert itself, space flight and festival are equally absurd.

Yet another canto documents the Annual World Land Speed Records, where mobile homes and homemade race cars compete by, essentially, going nowhere fast. The wall text points out an interesting detail: the speed races take place on the same Bonneville Salt Flats that so delayed the Donner party that they were unable to cross the mountains before winter and resorted to cannibalism. What was once daunting has become a place to showcase human magnificence. And while Misrach does not ignore the main event, his talent is locating the magnificence in the nutty detail. Two of his best shots in this canto are Roller Blades, in which a kid surveys the vast natural rink at his disposal, and Outdoor Dining, in which a diner erected on-site brings new meaning to the phrase "al fresco."

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