David Maisel

Lake Project 22

The photographer foremost on my mind this Thanksgiving morning is David Maisel. I first connected with David in a very crowded vehicle going to and from the Quaker meeting house in Houston, a structure that is graced with one of James Turrell’s “skyspace” installations. As noted on the meeting house site, the view is only available during clement (if that’s a word, the opposite of inclement) weather. That morning, and it was an early morning, shortly after sunrise on a March day, was damp, and our ostensible purpose in schlepping out to the House was thwarted–we sat, semi-recumbent on the meeting house benches, and stared at where the sky would have been, a square recess in the ceiling lit indirectly as a kind of replacement view.

During the commute to and from, David and I compared notes. We’re about the same age, and were both seasoned by East coast scholar/artists before departing for points west. As it turns out, the experience of (not) seeing Turrell’s framed sky was an apt overture to David’s work. He was showing the aerial views of poisoned lakes at the time, which resulted in the book The Lake Project (Nazraeli, 2004). The prints were on display in Houston, as part of Fotofest 2004, and I’d seen and marveled at them prior to meeting David; they have a magical combination of attraction, abstraction, and repulsion. I horned in on another reviewer’s free-time session with David to get a better sense of the work and the worker. Between that exchange and the Turrell trek I was impressed by David’s generosity and his sincere passion for exploring human nature through symbolic means.

Library of Dust 1454

David’s newest book, Library of Dust (Chronicle, 2008), turns the tables on The Lake Project and its successor, Oblivion (Nazraeli, 2006). Instead of an unspecified distance, which gives his aerials a woozy, vertiginous ambiguity, this new material puts a premium on intimacy and the (fallacious, ultimately) impression of accuracy. Each of the canisters he depicts, almost life-size on this book’s oversized pages, contains the ashes of patients who died and were cremated in a psychiatric hospital, and their remains were unclaimed. Over years, the minerals in the ashes have interacted with the copper urns and created otherworldly patterns that echo the fascinating, inexplicably real imprints David found in the lakes. In the “library,” though, the texts are written by orphaned souls, rather than irresponsible industrial waste disposal practices. In these works, conceptual simplicity blends with a surreal sense of life after life, all under an institutional umbrella that leaves us both amazed and appalled.

My Thanksgiving note, the inaugural entry in this new blog venture, goes out to David Maisel, for his elegant provocations and his gorgeous presentations. Not unlike Turrell’s work in that Houston meeting house, except that he allows a more rewarding use of one’s imagination.

Click for David Maisel’s web site and its Library of Dust section.

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