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In Plane Sight

Alex MacLean's aerial photography puts our development-happy city in its proper perspective

If you were to think of, say, the 100 most exciting premises for an exhibition, aerial photographs of Houston would probably rate No. 99, right above "The History of Air-Conditioning Filter Design." After all, it's not like we in the Bayou City benefit from dramatic geography, and besides, most of us are well acquainted with the phenomenon of abstract patchworks of land viewed from the window of a 747. Yawn. You think, it can't possibly be that interesting. Well, Alex S. MacLean's photographs at the Menil Collection are interesting, as well as surprising and provocative. Taken from the perspective of MacLean's low-flying single-engine Cessna, the images are well-composed color photographs, but the real kick is how MacLean has honed in on telling bits of the Houston landscape.

MacLean is a Boston-area architect who has created a body of photographic work that explores the United States from an aerial point of view. As a non-Houstonian, he turns a cynical eye to our landscape in his exhibition "From Above," although one perhaps overly informed by stats about the city. Sprawling and unwieldy, Houston is famous for its lack of zoning. We have the worst air quality in the country, largely because we also have the largest petrochemical industry in America. In another not-quite-coincidence, we have the foremost cancer treatment center in the country. While Houstonians may be aware of some of the less thrilling aspects of the place they call home, we tend to pick our own neighborhood based on economics, aesthetics, convenience or school districts, and then promptly ignore the overall picture. MacLean's photographs bring "the big picture" to disturbing light. While not all of the images stand well on their own, the photographs work effectively as a group, telling a story.

In Houston Ship Channel at Loop 610 Bridge (1999), the petrochemical landscape looms in the foreground while downtown appears like some far-off Emerald City -- one obscured by a thick smudge of smog. Another photo, a closely cropped overhead view of a Texas City refinery, gives us a glimpse into an otherworldly landscape that looks like a long-forgotten set from Outland -- and feels just as ominous. The intricate network of pipes and tanks has an intriguing beauty, until you remember what it is and calculate its proximity to your house. You stifle an impulse to jump into your fossil-fuel-burning vehicle and run every light on the way to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

MacLean's views of residential development are unpeopled and frozen. They beg to be analyzed in the same way an archaeologist tries to reconstruct a civilization from what the former inhabitants have left behind. "Look, a collection of nearly identical suburban homes laid out in a grid with a massive retail complex called Wal-Mart just steps away. They were a people who valued regularity, predictability, convenience and "Low, Low Prices!' "

Another consumer mecca, Katy Mills Mall (1999), is presented as an enormous sinister-looking mass surrounded by bare earth and not much else. From the air, the design seems much more suited to a penal colony than a shopping wonderland. West Houston Subdivision (1999) shows us a visually dramatic before and after. Orderly grids of houses line both sides of two concrete culs-de-sac. The mirror image shows two identical culs-de-sac surrounded only by freshly graded raw earth, scraped back and remade in a way that seems pointless from this height. You imagine an ominous robotic voice announcing, "Must destroy all and remake according to plan."

Frame Construction, Sugar Land (1999) has a warm early-morning (or is it sunset?) light and shows large pseudo-colonial homes rising up along man-made waterways in a Disneyesque simulation of nature, the exposed earth soon to be attractively planted in a pleasing and organized fashion. Fenced Trees (1999) shows the process in action as vegetation is strategically arranged on the dozer-tracked dirt and protectively fenced with orange plastic.

Tree Canopied Neighborhood, Montrose (1999) is a little more hopeful. Houses are discreetly tucked underneath the wide branches of mature trees. Not to bang the drum of Inner Loopdom, but when you look at the lush greenery, you think, "Maybe my lungs can hide from Texas City there." You may be fooling yourself, but the illusion is compelling.

Striped Parking Lot (1999) shows concrete mottled by dripping oil pans and crisscrossed with neat white lines to delineate parking spaces. A row and a half of spaces bear blue-and-white wheelchair icons, indicating handicapped parking. The marked and unmarked spaces could almost be a bar graph presenting the percent of disabled people in the population, a graphic aerial indicator of individual struggle.

Beauty is a major component of MacLean's work. You see it in those multicolored rectangles called barges that float in the Ship Channel on smooth dark water; in the clusters of white chemical tanks that dot the earth like cheery polka dots; and in the elegantly arcing ribbons of freeways and interchanges. Even the exposed earth of development has commonalties with Michael Heizer's and Robert Smithson's earthworks. Looking at the results of human activity on our landscape is disturbing, but also inspiring in an odd way. The images should concern anyone with even the most superficial awareness of environmental issues, but there is also a fascinating element here. Look at what we can do; human need and ingenuity are indelibly marked on the surface of the earth. See how we have segmented, manipulated and utilized our land. Critique and admiration coexist in MacLean's images. Look at what we can do; look at what we shouldn't do.

And then paranoia sets in. The images of urban sprawl and petrochemical plants would be more abstractly fascinating if you didn't freakin' live here. It's a train-wreck kind of fascination: You are transfixed by the image until you realize it's you stalled on the tracks in a Ford Pinto with an exploding rear gas tank. You think, Damn, look at what's going on here! Who gave them permission? What the hell were they thinking? Then it dawns on you that "they" is actually, well, us. Sure, you didn't build the refinery, but you do drive a car. You do shop at Wal-Mart. It makes you want to run out of the gallery, screaming, "Soylent Green is people!" Maybe that's not quite the right film reference, but you get the drift.

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