The Trouble with Beauty

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."

The catalog essay, written by exhibit curator Anne Wilkes Tucker, is titled "A Problem of Beauty." Misrach is a great believer in beauty, and many of his photographs redefine the grotesque as beautiful. Most noteworthy in that regard is The Pit, a canto devoted to the dumping grounds for animals who die in the desert. In one, a horse seems to emerge from the sand. In another, an eyeless pony and a fish (perhaps from a desert lake or discarded by a traveler) are kissing cousins in a mess of carrion. These photos are gut-wrenching and terribly poetic, insisting that the viewer stare death in the face, but not insisting that he do so without aesthetic reward. As far as beauty being a problem, it seems to become a quality to be explained or apologized for precisely when it threatens to eclipse Misrach's social conscience or political intent. The wall text accompanying The Pit stretches to compare these animals with animals who died from the fallout of nuclear testing in the 1950s, deaths for which the government denied responsibility. Next to Canto XVII: Deserts, the wall text tells us that the beautiful landscapes shown are endangered because they are owned by the government.

Several cantos document the government's outsized presence in the desert, a presence that includes secret bases and dirty atomic tests. The wall text condemns the government's abuse of the land for sinister purposes. The War (Bravo 20) documents a tract of land illegally bombed by the Navy for decades. Bravo 20 became an acclaimed book in which Misrach's photographs of old warheads peeking out of the sand, live ordnance and bomb craters were paired with his wife Myriam Misrach's account of how several locals worked to stop the bombing of public land. But the photographs themselves are beautiful -- Bomb Crater and Destroyed Convoy, for instance, shows a pit surrounded by rusted metal and filled with a blood-red liquid. Wreckage has been recognized for its aesthetic qualities since before John Chamberlain made sculptures from crashed cars, and the red pool, instead of causing alarm, looks primally nutritive. The Bravo 20 site may be the result of crime, but Misrach obviously thinks it looks cool. Perhaps seeking to resolve the problem of beauty, he even once proposed that Bravo 20 be made into a national park -- "to serve," of course, "as a permanent reminder of how military, government, corporate and individual practices can harm the earth."

In The Test Site, Misrach actually pairs each photograph with a text as part of the work, helping to clarify his political intentions without the aid of outside information. But even here, his photos are perilously fine. One portrait of a Yucca Mountain machine operator and a 19-foot chain saw is fit for the pages of an annual report; the text accompanying it criticizes the selection of Yucca Mountain as a radioactive waste dump. When Misrach begins to overarticulate the political basis for his work, the exhibit flags. Two cantos, The Playboys and The Paintings, are like experimental passages in a collection of narrative poetry. The former consists of close-ups from a Playboy magazine that was used as target practice on one of the military sites. Bullets have ripped through scenes of Marlboro country and a Vidal Sassoon ad featuring Andy Warhol, showing that "all aspects of American culture ... were riddled with violence." The Paintings are more obtuse. Here, Misrach has photographed paintings that hang in the hotels and museums of the West, the contents of which assert the dominance of white Western (European) ideals and peoples. It's not that Misrach is off base -- it's interesting to see how dominance of the desert and its nomadic cultures is supported by depictions of Native Americans as "primitives," for instance. But to photograph the paintings and Playboys is didactic and heavy-handed.

There's no doubt that Misrach is a committed activist, dedicated to using his art to protect the land he loves. His images and their accompanying texts have done much to educate the American public about its treasures. But the "Desert Cantos" project, and the deserts themselves, are bigger than Misrach's political sentiments.  

That aspect is precisely what he captures best -- and perhaps that is the "problem" with beauty. A clothesline stretches high, dry and ineffective over the Salton Sea in The Floods. An eagle's nest is comfortably perched in deserted military equipment in The War. A woman in Tucson waters her roses in The Inhabitants. Nothing seems particularly out of place. The exhibit closes with Canto XVIII: Skies, photos of the desert skies at their most intense level of color saturation (Misrach matches them on location with Pantone color chips so he can reprint them true to life). The sky photos are like a deep suck of breath on a cool desert night, a galactic reminder that our human existence -- our towns, wars and conquests -- are but short cantos against the grand score of the planet.

"Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach" shows through August 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 526-1361.

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