After visiting a representation of the New Topographics exhibit from the 70s at the SFMOMA a couple months ago, I've become obsessed with Lewis Baltz. Baltz ask the questions about modern space that I like to examine in terms of modern bodies. His work is part of an "anti-aesthetic," re-envisioning what a valid artisitic subject is, reevaluating the idea of landscape, scrutinizing the role of the artist, as well as that of man shaping his surroundings. He's often quite concerned with the privatization of space. This is what I love most about his collection, The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California.
Similar to other photographers of this movement, Baltz plays with the 19th century concept of the landscape painting. Instead of viewing an open expanse of sky across and above the rolling country, this is only implied. This provincial aesthetic is blocked out by products of human innovation. Building blocks of human enterprise and expansion.
Baltz tends to be more aggressive than some of his contemporaries though, in many cases allowing nothing natural to enter the frame. No point of reference exists for scale or local. Man both in front of and behind the camera completely controls the landscape. There is literally no escape. It's asphyxiating.
A lot of Baltz's work also centers around construction. Despite the solidity of the concrete backdrops, this is still a transitory endeavor. Man keeps tearing up, keeps building. This also points to what lies beneath the surface. Man has not just built on top of, but within and throughout, furthering the influence of this artificial, Euclidian order. Construction is one of Baltz's continued interests, as seen in his work in Nevada and around Candlestick Park in San Francisco in the 80s.
It's important to note as well that this is an exhibit of industrial parks. The privatization of space is a central theme. Nondescript boxes disrupt his landscapes. Nothing is revealed about these spaces, what their purpose is, why they exist. All we know is we're not allowed to know. He uses reflections a lot in his work to reinforce this opacity. The above photo is my favorite from the collection. The viewer is finally given access to a black box space (in print form, this space is so highly illuminated, my dad said it resembled trompe l'oeil. opacity persists), but what do we find inside? A ladder and some shit on the ground. Privatization for the sake of privatization. The closing off of public and open space.
Baltz's world is far removed from the classic frontier expansionist myth of America. Everything is boxed up, torn up, claustrophobic and utilitarian. Obviously, he has an artist's intent, a bias, but part of the intent of this movement was to try to create an objective outlook on this changing landscape. Obviously, this is impossible, but I think it's very easy to assume that Baltz is coming from a negative and judgmental place. I think this is limiting. His work is quite arresting, from a formalist perspective. He finds beauty in his subjects, finds his nondescript buildings worthy of being artistic subjects. According to my dad, he breaks all sorts of photography rules too, but I know nothing about that.
My views on how we relate to our bodies in contemporary space stems from a similar condition to that which Baltz interrogates. With everything disjointed and privatized, we have no point of reference on scale or skin. Our sex symbols are sterilized, mechanized, our beauty airbrushed. Bodies are now foreign to us, even though they're constantly shoved in our faces. The mind and the body have become dissociated, compartmentalized.
I would highly encourage taking a look at Baltz's work. I'd encourage the same for Nicholas Nixon and the rest of the New Topographics crew.