Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime

At the CU Art Museum, David Maisel's large-scale aerial photographs of mines and lakes embedded in the Western American landscape remind us that nature is still alive in spite of its on-going mortification at our own hands.

One ought to keep in mind Aby Warburg's wise advise to art viewers: Zurücktreten! — a quip on the loudspeaker's admonition to step back on the platform as the train approaches — when one enters the spacious gallery of the CU Art Museum in Boulder, Colorado that hosts David Maisel's exhibition Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime . It is a most appropriate setting for these large-scale aerial photographs, as one can step back at will in the enormous space until one reaches the desired and, probably, idiosyncratic viewpoint from which to grasp the image, or, more accurately, achieve its epiphany by adjusting one's vision "to an exact focus," in the high-strung words of Daedalus, James Joyce's youthful alter ego. It is a necessary telescoping process, as one cannot but mimic the artist's Icarian flight, in keep with the mythological lineage, in search of that elusive vantage point, the right distance from which to gain a commanding view of the earth.

The images on display, mostly of mines and lakes embedded in the Western American landscape and photographed from an aerial perspective, were all obtained from a distance that has been increasing over the years since Maisel started working on this project in the '80s. The prospect the viewer is asked to share, and the proper standard by which to measure Maisel's vision, in other words, is no longer the all-too-human bird's-eye view, but the god's-eye view of Wallace Stevens' necessary angel, who has inspired Maisel's work from its inception, as we learn from the magnificent volume that has been released in conjunction with the exhibition. The paradoxical title of both exhibition and book is borrowed, on the other hand, from another American poet, Mark Strand , while the category "apocalyptic sublime" is used to refer to Maisel's images in their subtitle and in a number of the informative and insightful essays in the book. And yet there is an almost classical serenity to the images that belies the label.
Top and above:<em>David Maisel/Black Maps</em>, installation view at the CU Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado. Photos by Jeff Wells/ © CU Art Museum
Top and above:David Maisel/Black Maps , installation view at the CU Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado. Photos by Jeff Wells/ © CU Art Museum
The astonishing palette of Maisel's pigment prints, like the bursting of colours on the screen at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev , when the black-and-white of history is replaced by the timeless radiance of the icons, is the redeeming feature that makes these landscapes inhabitable, as they slowly recede into a distance that transfigures them. The afterglow, while blinding, is a source of comfort, even as reason cannot but wonder at the wound that has been inflicted on the land (most of the sites have been abandoned, leaving behind a miasma of pollutants) and is still bleeding, has not healed yet. As in the presence of un-coagulated blood, however, the natural expectation is that the flow of life be not terminally interrupted.
David Maisel, <em>The Lake Project 20</em>, 2002
David Maisel, The Lake Project 20 , 2002
According to Spinoza, a pain may be called good insofar as it indicates that the wounded part is not yet putrified. Like a pain, an image may be said good insofar as it reminds us that we are not yet "mortified" (George Eliot's unfaithful but effective translation for putrefactam in Spinoza's Latin.) Maisel's images are good for that very reason, and even uplifting, in a literal sense, as they lift up the viewer to share his redeeming worldview: they remind us that nature is still alive in spite of its on-going mortification at our own hands. One comes out of Maisel's lessons of darkness, his tenebrae , in the glorious though blinding splendour of a noon that casts no shadows, Milton's "darkness made visible."
In Maisel's sight we are privileged to experience the exhilarating flight of an imagination that keeps hovering in perfect balance between the earth and the sun
<em>David Maisel/Black Maps</em>, installation view at the CU Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Jeff Wells/ © CU Art Museum
David Maisel/Black Maps , installation view at the CU Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Jeff Wells/ © CU Art Museum
In representing the battle between Darius and Alexander that decided the course of world history from a planet-embracing perspective, Albrecht Altdorfer meant to remind viewers of the extraordinary painting in Munich that the horizon of human history is far more limited than that of natural or divine history. In Maisel's images, the horizon is never visible, with one notable exception from the series Oblivion , in which the horizon above the city of Los Angeles merges itself into the darkness, and any distinction between earth and sky fades away.

Maisel's maps are at first sight claustrophobic, leaving apparently no breathing space, and yet there is a way out of the labyrinth in the vertical rhythm of the images: there is certainty to be found in their orientation, they are irreversible. They are as they ought to be "in their slow ascent/into themselves," to quote Strand's poem, and "as they rise into being/they are like breath," and one catches one's own breath, as well. By a happy coincidence, the exhibition happens on the same campus on which the great experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage taught for many years until his untimely death in 2003, whose tenth anniversary was just celebrated.
Left, David Maisel, <em>American Mine (Carlin NV 2 </em>, 2007. Right, David Maisel, <em>Oblivion 2N</em>, 2004
Left, David Maisel, American Mine (Carlin NV 2 , 2007. Right, David Maisel, Oblivion 2N , 2004
During a recent symposium, the Pittsburgh Trilogy that Brakhage filmed in 1971 was screened, an extraordinary work whose final episode is an autopsy, in the literal sense of the term, which the title of the movie spells out: The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes , the dissection of a corpse filmed and presented to the viewer in most unendurable detail. In an absorbing interview on the making of the film, Brakhage pleaded: "one thing that saves this film is this little tiny bit of reflected sky that's caught in a little puddle of liquid in the armpit of a corpse — a little blue ephemeral thing that can stand for all of Spirit, which otherwise would be missing." The capitalized S may or may not be Brakhage's, but it is by similar ephemeral mirrors that David Maisel captures the otherwise missing spirit.
<em>David Maisel/Black Maps</em>, installation view at the CU Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Jeff Wells/ © CU Art Museum
David Maisel/Black Maps , installation view at the CU Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Jeff Wells/ © CU Art Museum
Strangely, Brakhage observes, children accept the dark vision of the film more than adults, to which the interviewer points out that the man with the camera seems to experience "a kind of epiphany" in the film and becomes almost a child himself in the excitement of exploring what seem to be landscapes, but are the entrails and innards of the corpse: "the camera becomes a plane swooping through these strange formations." In Maisel's sight, like in Stevens' angel's and Brakhage's, we are privileged to "see the earth again" and to experience the exhilarating flight of an imagination that is nonetheless weary to get too far from the earth or too close to the sun and keeps hovering in perfect balance between the two: the angel is, first of all, "the angel of reality" and "one of you and being one of you/Is being and knowing what I am and know." Maisel knows undoubtedly what he is and knows, and his vision is the more powerful for this knowledge. Davide Stimilli
<em>David Maisel/Black Maps</em>, installation view at the CU Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Jeff Wells/ © CU Art Museum
David Maisel/Black Maps , installation view at the CU Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Jeff Wells/ © CU Art Museum
Through 11 May 2013
David Maisel/Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime
CU Art Museum
318 UCB, VAC, 1085 18th Street, Boulder, Colorado

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