Richard Misrach

Berkeley Art Museum, USA

In 1997 Richard Misrach moved into a new house in the Berkeley Hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay. His new residence had quite a view, encompassing the north shore of San Francisco, Angel Island, Alcatraz, the Marin headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. Almost inadvertently, it seems, he found himself taking pictures from his new front porch. His process was methodical; each photograph framed the scene from the same position, with only weather conditions and light as variables. Over the next three years Misrach took the same picture literally thousands of times. Individual photographs, however, record an astonishing variety of atmospheres and activities: in one the scene is blotted by a soup of fog, in another it is swarming with sailing boats, and so on. Each image is titled after the date and time it was taken.

Misrach's best photographs strike an anxious balance between visual pleasure and socio-political observation, and his 'Golden Gate' series is no different; it doesn't take long to realize that the twinkling island in the pictures' middle ground is an abandoned prison, or that the lush Presidio is a decommissioned military base. The visual field of this landscape is full of such disruptive information: the derelict jetty in the foreground, the awful commercial strip of the marina occasionally emerging from the haze. In his 'Desert Cantos' (1987) these nagging details constantly threatened to destroy the coherence of the photograph: once you realize that you're staring at hundreds of dead fish uncannily strewn about a desert floor in Nevada, the tight formal structure of the image becomes fraught, full of unnatural dread. In 'Golden Gate', though, these details don't have the same bite, or at least don't work in the same way. Dissonant episodes emerge from the matrix in their large exhibition format - headlights crossing the bridge, plush houses in Marin - but these details don't stick. The photograph in reproduction or memory is reduced to its (schmaltzy) schema, its set up: the shimmer of the bay, the bridge, the chocolate-box sunset and the huge expanse of sky.

This process appears to be a conscious subject of the 'Golden Gate' series, despite the naivety that inflects the artist's own account of it (it 'never occurred' to him that he would shoot the bridge; he continued because he 'became obsessed'). Misrach knows that ruins can be as photogenic as sunsets, prisons as picturesque as bridges. Any place - a charnel pit, a nuclear test site - can be aestheticized. Not that this particular scene needs to be helped along, of course. His view of the bay is often hopelessly, flagrantly cheesy, full of cavorting clouds, brooding fog, velvety distance, pink sunsets, even rainbows - but the sheer conventionality of this sentimental Sublime seems to be what drove him to push the shutter again and again. The artist is fascinated (and horrified) by the power of photography to rewrite a landscape as a vista, as an aesthetic spectacle (and thereby to render invisible the structures and processes that have produced it).

The purpose of his project is unclear, though. Does Misrach mean to test his pretty view for all it's worth, to push aesthetic pleasure until it breaks? Or does he simply trigger its (tacky, compromised) pleasures again and again? Does the reiteration deaden the impact of the cliché? Or repeat it endlessly, fetishistically? Does he want to one-up the postcards or to subvert them? It is significant that most striking works in the show are those in which the landscape is perversely absent: 8.26.99 (1999-2002), where the artist left the shutter open for an hour while the sun came up, producing an evil red smudge in a sea of black; or 4.15.99 (1999-2002), where a flesh-crawling fog obliterates even the faintest outlines of land.

The exhibition also includes a number of Misrach's earliest works, photographs taken in Berkeley around 1972, after Altamont and Kent State had soured the hippy high. Even then he had an eye for intensely observed detail: the lollipop and Led Zeppelin pendant in Dakini and Friend (c. 1972) or the wild hair of the teenagers striking screw-face poses in Three Girls (c. 1972). There are flesh-crawling moments here too, particularly one photo of two hard-rock hippies groping some girl. Heavy. They're interesting enough as documentary, but they read here as a crisis in confidence, as if they're meant to apologize for Misrach's shift in class and geography, from gritty streets to his suburban home up the hill, and to account for the relatively ambiguous politics of the 'Golden Gate' series.

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.

Issue 71

First published in Issue 71

Nov - Dec 2002