Compendium of Scars: Pained Vistas at Photographic Center Northwest

A person wearing a shirt with the number "8" squeezes their face between gaps in a border wall to speak to someone through it. On both sides of them, palm plants bloom.
Griselda San Martin, Untitled (The Wall), 2016. Courtesy of Photographic Center Northwest.

Against the overbearing mechanisms of industrial capitalist society intended to cement landscape as a timeless or innocent backdrop to our lives, a growing diversity of concerned voices have advocated redefining landscape in the context of ideology, identity, visual representation, and power. This oppositional chorus seeks to clarify the embedded specters of violence, oppression and injustice, while also unpacking how the process of meaning-making in such spaces has often prioritized specific narratives and interpretations while concealing others.

These critical approaches scaffold Pained Vistas, a group exhibition of photography and video at Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle. The eleven artists present works that wrestle with the visual medium’s fraught relationship to landscape representation, as well as the tightrope walk of how to reference occluded traumas despite the camera’s inherent tendency to aestheticize what it records.

Under a hazy clear sky, ripples of hills and valleys stretch indefinitely.
Selena Kearney, Home or Exile, 2019. Courtesy of Photographic Center Northwest.

Selena Kearney’s Home or Exile (2019) sets a tone for launching into this fray. The photograph gives an elevated vantage point over a sweeping array of rugged hills in the foreground, beyond which a flat plateau stretches toward a distant mountain range. Despite the clearly pronounced horizon line, a vast, puffy-clouded blue sky dominates the majority of the image. The location is perhaps somewhere in the North American West, but its anonymity leaves the viewer to fill in the blanks. This ambiguity prompts us to sit with our own preconceptions about the landscape: how do we read this scene, what assumptions do we project onto it, and where do those assumptions come from? Through both the image and an adjacent wall text, Kearney also encourages us to reflect on the meanings of “home” and “exile,” and especially the lasting consequences of establishing one’s home through dispossessing someone else of theirs.

On a nearby wall, selections from Kris Graves’s project Privileged Mediocrity & The Deceived Within (2020) examine various scars of systemic injustice and racism in the US, including documentation of recent Black-led contestations of Confederate memorials. Together with Wendel White’s rendering of the traces of educational apartheid in his series Schools for the Colored, the two artists deliver a potent perspective on the built environment.

Graves’s image Stone Mountain Confederate Monument, Georgia (2020) brings viewers up close with the supersized etching in the mountainside and its adulation of white supremacy culture—reminding us that monuments ultimately traffic in the politics of public memory and are means for power structures to dictate histories.

Carved into the side of a mountainside are four figures riding horses, holding their hats over their hearts.
Kris Graves, Stone Mountain Confederate Monument, Georgia, 2020. Courtesy of Photographic Center Northwest.

Some of the exhibited artists take a rather straightforward approach to landscape imagery, almost as if they were simply vacation snapshots or postcards. Which isn’t to say that these images lack artistic merit; if anything, they reproduce the vernacular in order to undermine it, gesturing to the shared critique that these seemingly benign scenes are rife with obscured sociopolitical complications. Still, questions remain about what is always left outside of the frame, how to leverage a critique with the tools and idiosyncrasies of the medium, and how to reconcile these images with the weight of the traumas they seek to convey—some of which are made available to the viewer through titles or didactics, while others are left unspoken. This isn’t necessarily to blame the artists, but rather to echo a conundrum within photography that is difficult to resolve.

Many artists crafted technically and aesthetically pristine works, with compelling formal choices and alluring use of color, such as the soft palette and ethereal gloom of Marc Wilson’s images of Holocaust sites across Europe, or the painterly dapples of light and shadow in Griselda San Martin’s photographs of separated families briefly sharing intimate space together through sections of the border wall between Tijuana and San Diego. Donna Wan’s photographs directly interrogate aesthetic conventions by detailing locations of sublime natural beauty that are also frequent spots for suicide attempts. There is a lingering risk of romanticizing these circumstances, but Wan’s images ask a relevant, if not troubling question about how our aesthetic preferences are culturally coded. Meanwhile, elements of Yazan Khalili’s photographs contribute a degree of anti-aesthetic argument to the exhibition. Instead of scenes perfectly composed in dazzling light, the Palestinian artist created a pair of semi-grainy nighttime landscapes where the emphasis is on darkness, visibility and invisibility, and reclaiming space amidst the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Stemming from Khalili’s specific embodied experience, it attests to the affective components of landscape as well as the importance of situated knowledge.

A winding road curves around a bend, beneath a fire orange sunset.
Yazan Khalili, 30′ | f5, 2008. From the project Landscape of Darkness. Courtesy of Photographic Center Northwest.
Water the color of blood bubbles, as sheets of ice float by.
Kiliii Yuyan, Confluence, 2016. Courtesy of Photographic Center Northwest.

Kiliii Yuyan epitomizes these notions further through stories of Indigenous communities in the Arctic. His image Confluence (2016) shows the aftermath from an Alaskan Iñupiaq harvest of a bowhead whale, as the animal’s blood washes across the sea ice. The harvest provides sustenance and carries on the traditional stewardship that Iñupiaq peoples have practiced for millenia. Informed by ancestry that is both Nanai/Hèzhé (East Asian Indigenous) and Chinese-American, Yuyan’s photographs proclaim the continuity of Indigenous pathways and how their communities thrive in the present and future.

To the extent that each artist’s personal experience and individual subjectivity animate the work, their situated knowledges join together to assert an oppositional gaze to the increasingly irrelevant Eurocentric landscape lexicon. Only by embracing such cogent counter-narratives and moving beyond the merely-aesthetic or merely-visual can we begin to effectively grapple with, and ultimately heal, the scars that these photographs reveal.

Pained Vistas
Photographic Center Northwest
January 13 – March 17, 2022


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Author: Greg Ruffing

Greg Ruffing (he/him) is an artist, writer, and independent curator currently based in Seattle on the unceded ancestral lands of the Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Duwamish Tribe who are the original stewards of this land. Greg's research and creative practice are largely concerned with spatial politics, the built environment, phenomenology, and visual culture. His writing has appeared in Hyperallergic, Sixty Inches From Center, Lumpen Magazine, Southwest Contemporary, Great River Review, and elsewhere.