Joshua Band, Enter House Left. Photo by Janice Suhji.

Nothing to See Here

Tom DeCaigny, Director of Cultural Affairs at the City and County of San Francisco says he knows this place. He and I are standing in front of a life size mural photograph on canvas depicting a forested and theatrically lit night scene. In the image, a small sign stands at the base of a dirt path that leads into a dense and naturalistic planting of camellia and pines. We both think it is Golden Gate Park, but disagree on the exact location. Tom thinks it’s the path to ChocoLands at the Outside Lands Festival and I believe it’s near the Chain of Lakes where I saw a coyote.


In fact, neither of us is correct, as this is an entirely fictional landscape. In the tradition of stage-set design, Enter House Left is a play on landscape as a stage for theater. Artist Joshua Band created this fantasy by compositing more than ninety separate photographs to create one seamless image. The only clue to the image’s unnatural drama is the multiple sources and directions of light. Enter House Left highlights our natural impulse to transfer personal experiences in actual landscapes on to the photographic scene.


Enter House Left is included in “Nothing to See Here,” the current exhibition at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery. In this exhibition, four Bay Area photographers challenge our perception of familiar landscapes. “Nothing to See Here” offers a contemporary examination of the relationship between landscape and photography, and the influence of culture on the two mediums.


Johnna Arnold, For Sale (Ice Plant) I-880, Oakland, CA


Another work in the show, For Sale (Ice Plant) I-880, Oakland, CA, by Johnna Arnold, depicts a place where people don’t belong. As a typical freeway landscape, it is an environment that is rarely appreciated or acknowledged by people driving by in fast moving vehicles. Arnold’s work exposes the unexpected beauty and tension in these landscapes by placing herself the photographic frame. The images transform the freeway into a stage for Arnold to act out her own complex feelings of human fragility in relation to transportation infrastructure. In viewing her work, I wonder if she is in danger, taking part in illicit activity, making a statement on the planet’s destruction, or is she just being rebellious? Interpretations of Arnold’s work must vary, as we each read cues in the landscape from our own worldview. In Fake Rock, I80 Rodeo, CA, another of her works, I believe Arnold pokes fun at the Disney-fication of contemporary landscapes, and our acceptance of  natural-looking, fake rock that is used to dress up a freeway sound barrier.


Johnna Arnold, Fake Rock, I80 Rodeo, CA


Jin Zhu also critiques deceitful landscapes in the American West. The artist states this body of work focuses on human settlement, the desires that motivate migration, and the need for water to “civilize” the desert. Viewing the works, I found myself questioning the ability of water to “civilize” an environment and wondering if this is a political comment by the artist on the growing impact of unsustainable communities in the desert. In Water Boundary, Zhu exposes a stark border, where the green irrigated lawn draws an arbitrary line in the arid desert sand and encroaching debris. In this environment, has the introduction of water actually “civilized” or improved this place? Or rather, does the image point to the absurdity of Love’s Travel Stop posing as a green oasis in the middle of the desert?


Jin Zhu, Water Boundary


The landscape photography in “Nothing to See Here” blurs the distinction between real and make believe, natural and unnatural environments. The show forces us all to become photo-editors who choose the sensory and symbolic relevancy in these landscapes to form our own coherent personal interpretation.

“Nothing to See Here: An Exhibition of Photography featuring Johnna Arnold, Joshua Band, Nicole Jean Hill and Jin Zhu,”
is on view in the SFAC Main Gallery located in the Veteran’s War Memorial Building at 401 Van Ness through January 27, 2013.


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