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Photography Review

The plain truth

Frank Gohlke's photographs take in the width and wonder of American landscapes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 30, 2008

It's not wrong to call Frank Gohlke a landscape photographer. It's just too limiting. Yes, he shoots landscapes, but as part of a larger, more complex enterprise. Call it interface photography: a recording of right-angled encounters between sky and land, man and nature, space and time.

"Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke," the deeply satisfying career retrospective that runs at the Addison Gallery of American Art through July 13, shows Gohlke, 66, working in a variety of settings: the Larry McMurtry country of his native north Texas; the Upper Midwest; Mount St. Helens; northern Ohio; the South; a number of locations in Massachusetts, most notably along the Sudbury River. Gohlke taught at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design from 1988 to 2006.

Starting in mid-July, a major expansion will close the Addison for 18 months. "Accommodating Nature" ensures it goes out with a bang. This is a big show - it includes 85 pictures - but that's as it should be. Even when his subject is just houses in Wichita Falls, where he grew up, Gohlke communicates a sense of size. It's a birthright. A son of the Great Plains, Gohlke is an oracle of the horizontal. "I feel safest in places where the earth under my feet can be followed in sight until it disappears over the horizon," he writes in the exhibition catalog.

The sense of space in his pictures can imprison rather than liberate. "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America," the poet Charles Olson once wrote. "I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy." Spacious does not begin to describe the Great Plains (there's a reason they're called "great"). What the Sahara is to dry, what the Pacific is to wet, the Great Plains are to openness. Of course, a picture like "House on the outskirts of Moorhead, Minnesota" reminds how close openness can be to oppressiveness.

While not in awe of nature, Gohlke most certainly respects it. The idea of survival, rather than exaltation, underlies so many of his landscapes. The houses he shoots in Witchita Falls, the grain elevators in Minnesota, are akin to frontier outposts. The Plains are about spread (and defenselessness), the structures are about indrawing (and shelter). In fact, the gun-turret splendor of "Art deco house, corner of Lebanon and Kessler, Wichita Falls, Texas" is more fortress than shelter.

Notice, by the way, how detailed that title is. Geography matters to Gohlke. Sense of place is as much about specificity as evocation.

Visually, the Plains are plain as well as plane, and (relative) plainness characterizes the places Gohlke photographs. Even when he shoots Mount St. Helens, it's well after the eruption. Ansel Adams-style transcendence does not interest him. John Rohrbach, who organized the show for the Amon Carter Museum, in Fort Worth, describes Gohlke's images as "laconic." That's exactly right. Grandeur is all well and good, but actuality (a much mightier concept) subsumes it. "Maybe by photographing places and things whose claim on the general attention involved little more than the fact they were incontrovertibly there," Gohlke writes, "I was reminding myself that existence itself is life's deepest mystery."

In so many of these images you sense, even if you cannot see, the wind. These pictures are, in a very literal sense, airy - but they have none of the associations one has with "airiness." They are dense with air, heavy with air. "Marsh fire (2), Bolivar Peninsula, Texas" shows us how smoke (as well as, in other pictures, dust and cloud) can fill that air, almost making of gas a solid.

(So does "Marsh Fire, Galveston, Texas," which is one of the 21 photographs in "Frank Gohlke: Straight Ahead & On the Line." A splendid pendant to "Accommodating Nature," it runs at Gallery Kayafas through June 7.)

Lest we forget, tornadoes are nothing but air. A section of "Accommodating Nature" (that first word is even more sardonic read as adjective than verb) consists of before-and-after photos from the category 5 tornado that hit Wichita Falls in 1979. In one of the pictures, a child plays in front of a ruined house. People rarely appear in Gohlke's pictures, and when they do they seem as incongruous as that kid. "A woman watering her garden, near Kirkville, Mississippi" looks like a refugee from a Tupelo Madame Tussauds. The tourists in "Visitors on the rim of Mount St. Helens, Washington" look insect-puny.

Landscape is inherently representational. One of the things that makes Gohlke's treatment of it so powerful is the recurrent, if subtle, way he allies it to an almost-Cartesian geometry. That is, he again and again defines a photograph angularly.

Most often, it's a right angle of almost-dire horizontality - the unrelenting flatness of the terrain - intersected by the resistant verticality of tree or chimney, cornstalk or icicle - even the sun (Gohlke took his Wichita Falls photos at mid-day). Everything that rises may or may not converge. But in "Accommodating Nature" everything that rises most definitely resists. Gohlke's relish of the perpendicular reaches a kind of apotheosis in one of the post-tornado pairings, as we see a grievously bent telephone pole and traffic sign magically returned to the upright 15 months later.

There's another geometric motif Gohlke's fond of. It's easy to overlook, but once you notice it you see how he keeps coming back to it. He likes to slice the picture plane at a slight diagonal. In "Badminton net at Naniboujou Lodge near Grand Marais, Minnesota," it's the wind-bellied mesh of the net. In "Oakland Lake Park, Oakland Gardens, Queens, New York," it's a fence. In "Village of Boxboro Station, Boxboro, Massachusetts," it's the train tracks. This diagonal motif both imparts depth and suggests the ongoing presence of that surrounding immensity Gohlke grew up with - an immensity, it would seem, he takes with him wherever he goes.

Coming East brings a lushness to Gohlke's work - and it's not just the fact most of these pictures are in color. They're bigger, too. It's almost as if, on the Plains, he feared the impact of size. In a more inviting setting his photographs can expand and unhunker. Of course, inviting is a relative term. The oozy eddies in "Chemical brook enters Sudbury River, Ashland, Massachusetts, December 1991" are wondrous lustrous in color - but that's because the unnatural colors are wondrous strange. In "Nyanza toxic waste site, above the Sudbury River, Ashland" the tracery of chain link and barbed wire blend with the tracery of branch and reed. There's Mount Wachusett in the background, a danger sign in the foreground, and the fence angles off toward the horizon. It's not north Texas, but Frank Gohlke is clearly at home.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke

At: the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover, through July 13. 978-749-4015, andover.edu/addison

Frank Gohlke: Straight Ahead & On the Line

At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through June 7. 617-482-0411, gallerykayafas.com.

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