Modern Landscape

Urban and Western Scenes in the Work of Ann Kendellen and John Kane

This week, I decided to divert from the model of past weeks’ blog posts: rather than examining the two Drawers photographers in conjunction with one another, through the lens of their commonalities, I examine them both separately. This has allowed me to delve into their distinct themes and concerns, without limiting my discoveries to the qualities they share.

Portland photographer Ann Kendellen documents small-scale urban streetscapes, creating intricate forms out of graffiti, murals, detritus, dumpsters, and tree branches. Likening the layers of residue to prehistoric cave paintings, Kendellen writes that “cities offer their walls as a modern canvas...compressing the details inside the frame is a way of creating a second view, a reflection on the complex relationships within the jumble of the street.” Her work creates a detailed record of the city’s residents and the imprints they leave behind, both planned and accidental. Kendellen distills a kind of order from chaos, grafting real and imagined objects together through shape and form. For instance, in “Portland, Oregon,” from 2011, a painted tree trunk from a public mural merges with a dumpster resting against the side of the building. Tags and miscellaneous graffiti mark the scene, uniting high and low art in a visual palimpsest: a streetcar labeled “desire” reaches the end of its tracks beside a tag that simply proclaims ‘TITS.’ In a second image, “Baltimore, Maryland” from 2014, Kendellen challenges perceptions of artificiality. The image shows a familiar scene of an apartment building, bordered by a mound of garbage; however, upon closer inspection, the setting reveals itself to be almost entirely fabricated, as the windows, trees, and open white gate are painted on, and only the trash and overgrown sidewalk are three-dimensional. This leads to questions of artistic ‘creation’: if a photograph is largely made up of a painting, does it serve as its own work of art? This recalls the work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto (specifically, his dioramas) which picture scenes from inside the Museum of Natural History. The images illuminate the nature of photography as a collector’s art, as a photographer ‘takes’ rather than ‘makes’ an image, uniting fragments of real objects into the mutant form of the frame. Kendellen’s images exhibit these postmodern tendencies, collapsing boundaries between the real and the artificial, crafting forms from urban leftovers with joyous curiosity.

In Ranchlands, photographer John Kane documents the modern American West, alluding to the grand, sweeping landscapes of Ansel Adams and his predecessors, including Western land surveyors like Timothy O’Sullivan. The wide horizons, leading lines, and cloudscapes reference these forefathers of landscape photography, but the technological structures show a departure from those pre-industrial scenes: the formerly sublime hills are bordered with barbed wire, the monochromatic grayscale has been replaced with intensely saturated, unnatural reds and blues. As Adams’ images served a political purpose, furthering his conservationist agenda and spurring the designation of Kings Canyon as a national park, Kane’s work, in part, suggests the environmental toll of ranching. In “Ranch Below the Caprock, New Mexico,” from 2014, cows nurse on a dusty, irrigated river, the saturated red hues giving it a blood-like quality, like the aftermath of a biblical sacrifice. However, this imagery has more expansive possibilities than simply admonishing violence on nature: Kane writes of his work that “ranching is the occupation and way of life most central to the mythology of the West, and to many of its realities as well. It is intimately and inseparably tied to the Western landscape.” Kane’s images, by showing the vital nature of ranching, complicate and ground the familiar Western landscape imagery of the past. The immense beauty of Adams’ photographs forced a sacrifice of honesty and nuance, as the fallacy of emptiness, with its implications of colonial ideals, has its own adverse political effects. Kane’s work conveys the modern Western landscape as multifaceted, as beautiful and unnerving, inhabited yet vacant. He both probes and admires the patriotism that these Western landscapes inspire through a tainted and strange red, white, and blue color scheme.

-Molly Walls