Oddball Miracles by Gregory Volk
It's a fascinating paradox that when a group of intrepid artists in the 1960s and early 1970s left the gallery and the museum to make works directly in and with the landscape, their projects came to an audience then, and still come to us now, largely through photographs, videos, and documentation. One can, of course, see the works themselves, when and if they still exist, but by far most alert viewers know these works through photographic documentation. I mention this, regarding the photographer Jan Staller, because on a profound level he's an heir to these adventures in Land Art, especially to the kind of postindustrial landscapes favored by Robert Smithson. Staller has admitted how engaged he is with the marshlands of New Jersey or the suburban wilds of Long Island where, in a context of stretching landscapes and vaulting skyscapes, factories break down, half-finished construction sites loom, and storage site tumble into entropic disarray - these are precisely the kinds of zones that so riveted Smithson, with their fraught nature-culture interface. Staller, and intrepid artist himself, also travels widely to locate the sites and situations he photographs. This can include relatively quotidian sites like Vancouver construction sites, New Jersey parking lots, or an electrical substation in Houston. It can also include a crater made by a nuclear bomb (the military, at the time, thought it a good idea to explore using nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes, in this case land alteration) and an electromagnetic pulse testing facility at a nuclear weapons base in New Mexico. Staller consistently discovers details at all of these sites that under normal conditions would be commonplace and forgettable, but that become, in his photographs, extraordinary, visually lush, and at times frankly bizarre.
Land Art and its offshoots, for instance the temporary outdoors sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy or the temporary scultpures-as-events of Roman Signer, are only one of Staller's influences, but a big one. Still, in Staller's case a central orientation is entirely reversed. Instead of making remote or ephemeral sculptures out in the landscape, which are then photographed and documented, the photograph itself is his focus, and his subjects are oftentimes found industrial forms that uncannily resemble or allude to sculptures and paintings. Staller, in short, has an extraordinary eye for non-sculpted sculptures, and non-painted paintings, largely occurring outdoors, which only exist in that particular way, with their myriad art historical references, if one sees them in a particular way, which is photographically. In a post-Walter Benajamin era, when many sculptors and painters have increasingly incorporated mechanical, or photographic, reproduction into their works, Staller does exactly the opposite: he's an exquisite photographer whose works very much cross over into painting, sculpture, installation, and drawing.
Consider, for instance Field of Boxes, in which a seemingly vast, slightly irregular grid of wooden crates angles out toward hills in the distance and the even more distant horizon. All of these boxes recall Donald Judd's modular constructions, or the serial repetition of Walter De Maria. Indeed it's not a stretch at all to imagine this shot as a sort of minimalism in ruins, as a spare art monument fallen into disrepair and subject to weather and erosion, but one which still retains a vivid, if ramshackle, beauty. Especially with the voluptuous sky above, and intimations of vast distance at the margins, this scene is particularly dazzling, and this is something that most of Staller's photographs share: they're visually stunning as they chart their own hybrid course between photography, the plastic arts, and expansive landscapes. In the meantime, Staller photographed nothing more than a bunch of mundane crates. which were either discarded or lying around waiting to be used. And if one were to have looked at these crates from a different perspective, they probably wouldn't have resembled a sculpture at all, but instead would have seemed like scruffy detritus. In this sense, Staller doesn't really document found art works in the landscape, so much as he creates them entirely, by looking a particular way, and photographing a particular way.
Consider as well String Field, in which upright poles in a grid are connected at their tops by strung wire, from the wire strands of string descend. At first glance, this situation bears an uncanny resemblance to Walter De Maria's "Lightning Field." Instead of lightning playing off vertical metal poles, however, as in the De Maria work, here one finds wire and string playing off rickety wooden poles. Like many of Staller's works, there's a bleakness and loneliness to the scene, but also a visual intricacy, and a sense of psychological, perhaps even spiritual, voyaging and discovery. Of course, there's a deadpan humor as well with the De Maria reference, and one can be certain that there won't be any busloads of art enthusiasts traveling here to witness the magic. Still, the remarkable thing with Staller's image is how a practical agricultural apparatus not only formally resembles "Lightning Field" but also evokes the same kind of intense interplay between the structure and world. This airy contraption frames the huge sky and the horizon, it responds to the wind and gravity, and seems altogether implicated in primal, world-shaping process.
In making a kind of photography that exists in the interstices between, say, photography and sculpture, it's important to see that Staller is not parodying some of the more iconic artworks and art figures of the last few decades, nor is he playing some insider artworldish game. Instead, he frankly acknowledges his affinities, especially with artists like Judd, De Maria, Eva Hesse, and Smithson, and he's obviously engaged with sculptural questions of space, materials, color, and patterning. When brought into photographs, all of this amounts to heady, genre-bending stuff, but the really odd thing, and what most distinguishes Staller as an artist, is how evocative his scenes are - culturally, psychologically, and poetically - in the midst of their savvy art references. Many of Staller's photographs have an otherworldly, vaguely creepy, fundamentally mysterious look that suggests an alien world inexplicably morphing from a familiar one, whether far, far out in the landscape, or really close to home like a familiar street, parking lot, or construction lot. Gravel Frosted with Snow, for instance, is just that - snow piles stuccoed with gravel - but here it has the look of rippling mountain ranges on a planet in some other galaxy. Dirt Drawing on Blacktop conjures up a view from an airplane, or better yet a satellite, of a landscape lit up at night, but also the strange markings left on the landscape by some lost civilization. It's out on the borderlands where nature and manmade structures intersect that Staller makes his startling discoveries.
When one first encounters Jan Staller's photographs, with their vibrant colors and peculiar lighting, its easy to assume that they were accomplished digitally, via the assistance of computerized effects. In fact, Staller eschews special effects altogether, and the one technological innovation that he repeatedly uses are portable stadium lights powered by generator. Staller's method of mixing natural and artificial light is supremely effective, and a big reason why his images have an almost science fictive weirdness and thrill. With Vancouver Fence, a red fence in the foreground has a downright supernatural glow, suggesting a UFO encounter or perhaps more aptly a film or television version of the same. IN the background, a twilit sky, pine tress, water, and dark hills also take on an alien air, as well as a foreboding sense that something dire is about to happen, some mystery about to be revealed. This, incidentally, is one of numerous times when Staller's starkly illuminated scenes resemble a lit up movie set, which makes for an interesting predicament: fact shades into fiction, the landscape as it is shades into an ultra-mediated version suggesting just how impacted nature is in this era with cultural influence. And speaking of alien encounters, Staller's two shots of silage wrapped in white fabric seem like a cross between sculpture and a serpentine, heretofore unimagined life form writhing across the farmlands. That these works also contain references to Christo's wrapped objects only underscores how much information Staller is able to pack into his typically pared-down images.
It's one thing to discover beauty in the facade of half-finished hotel, but quite another to discover beauty that becomes an altogether engaging sculpture, albeit one made without the artist's hand. That's what happens with Motel, in which colored squares at the front of open rooms constitute a fragile and scattered, yet altogether delightful, floating plane. In the meantime, one of those generic, in-process Ramadas suddenly becomes a thing of wonder, and Staller is entirely interested in this kind of transformation. With Containers, Newark, this motif of brightly colored squares is repeated, but now as shipping containers in a giant-sized grid; it's a photograph that doubles as a wonderful cross between a sculpture and a painting. Jan Staller has an excellent eye for exactly this kind of sculptural or painterly detail, at loose in the worlds at large, and there are also many times when his images go even further to become mind-bending encounters with the outside. With Bridge Base, Korea, clusters of red tubular material jut upwards from a bridge's base, suggesting at once a towering vertical sculpture and a ferociously proliferating genetically-altered plant. One sees through this thicket to a huge sky overhead, and a huge landscape in the background, and you can't shake the feeling that at this one point the normal workings of the world have been irrevocably altered. The image is absolutely disorienting, for you're not sure what you're looking at, how or why it's there, if this is a found or completely concocted scene. It's also absolutely gorgeous, and Staller excels at finding this kind of oddball miracle in the unlikeliest of places.