‘Landscapes in Passing’ art review

Elaine Mayes - The 1971 “Autolandscape” series documents a 10-day, cross-country trip by car. The photographs were shot from the window of a moving vehicle.

Three very different styles of landscape photography are being served up in a small but savory sampling of images from deep in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Part of a series of exhibitions meant to showcase objects that rarely see the light of day, “Landscapes in Passing” features work from a trio of photographers, each of whom is represented by a single body of black-and-white work: Elaine Mayes, Robbert Flick and Steve Fitch.

The show spans a single decade and begins with Mayes’s “Autolandscape” project documenting her 1971 cross-country road trip from San Francisco to Amherst, Mass. Shot from inside a moving car — sometimes while she was driving — the 18 images are arranged in geographic order and include pictures from 11 states. (Only one image of Utah, hung outside the entrance to the show, is out of sequence.)

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Because her camera was moving, there’s a bit of blur in most of the images, which only adds to the feeling of exhilarating speed and spontaneity that comes from the fact that Mayes usually wasn’t even looking through the viewfinder. As a result, there’s a random quality to the subject matter, which avoids the photogenic grandeur of scenic parklands for the banality of street signs, offramps, distant mountains and telephone poles. Most of Mayes’s sea-to-shining-sea travelogue emphasizes hypnotic monotony over purple mountain majesties.

“Autolandscape” contains a double meaning, referring both to the artist’s vehicular vantage point and to the automatic nature of the shooting, which was guided primarily by instinct, not aesthetics. Flick’s photos, from his 1980 “Sequential Views” project, are similarly robotic.

Each of Flick’s works contains a 10-by-10 grid of 100 postage-stamp-size images of such Los Angeles area neighborhoods as Beverly Hills and Venice Beach. Like Mayes, Flick is also a documentarian of the landscape, except he’s moving through it on foot, not in a car. Shot at prescribed intervals, his grid of Inglewood, for example, documents a stroll down 10 blocks of Regent Street. Look very closely at the left-hand row, and you can just make out the street signs.

Surprisingly, the effect is less numbing than you might think. Shooting the quintessential car culture as a pedestrian — with his shutter blinking every few steps or so — Flick creates an almost filmlike effect, like an extended tracking shot. Evoking frames of a movie, Flick’s sequential views aren’t so much panoramas as miniature “cineramas.”

Steve Fitch’s work is unlike anything else in the show. Shot between 1971 and 1976 for a series (and book) called “Diesels and Dinosaurs,” the images document a Western America characterized by truck stops, motels, drive-ins, roadside reptile zoos and dilapidated dinosaur sculptures. Wit — along with careful composition — replaces the seemingly haphazard, deadpan tone of Mayes’s and Flick’s work.

Most of Fitch’s humor derives from irony. His idea of “nature” or “landscape” is epitomized by Woody Woodpecker on the screen at a Dallas drive-in or a mural of mountains painted onto the wall of the Big Chief Motel on Highway 80 in Gila Bend, Ariz.

It’s tempting to dismiss Fitch as the least landscape-y of the three artists. After all, his subject, more often than not, is vernacular architecture.

On one level, his work is about displacement, not place. Still, like Mayes and Flick, he conveys a real sense of a country in which no one — least of all the artist — stays in one place anymore.

The Story Behind the Work

Flick’s series of sequential views were shot for the Los Angeles Documentary Project, a survey sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, that put into service seven photographers (in addition to the Dutch-born Flick) who were known for their work in California: Gusmano Cesaretti, Joe Deal, Douglas Hill, John Humble, Bill Owen, Susan Ressler and Max Yavno.

Surprisingly, all of the artists shot in black-and-white, other than Owen, who focused on swimming pools, clubs and other colorful SoCal stereotypes.

That may be because the NEA survey project was as much conceptual as retinal. Although there aren’t many people in Flick’s images — a rare exception being his grid of a crowded Venice Beach on Labor Day weekend — his photographs are all about man’s effect on the environment. There isn’t much nature in his pictures. Mostly, it’s restricted to the street signs that evoke an American myth of rusticity that exists only in the place names on urban maps: Prairie, Eastwood, Hillcrest, Locust, Fir and Eucalyptus.

— Michael O'Sullivan

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