Artists are redefining what picturesque landscapes can be by diverting from their traditional depictions as decorative, one-dimensional images. The current Thacher Gallery exhibit, “Elemental Exposures,” incorporates unique approaches to representing American western landscapes from a technical and conceptual standpoint, binding the experiences of multiple artists together under one production.
The exhibition features the works of artists such as Kristian Chan who explores the connection between race and environment from her point of view as a first-generation Malaysian-Chinese artist; Binh Danh whose focus is centered on his personal connection as a Vietnamese American to national U.S. landmarks and their history; Bessma Khalaf who uses degradation techniques such as burning; and Dionne Lee who emphasizes personal relationships to landscapes in America and hopes to evoke both their natural wonder and vulnerability through her work.
Like her fellow artists featured in the exhibit, Iraqi-American interdisciplinary artist Bessma Khalaf pushes the boundaries of landscape. She burns and smashes her work, creating dynamic pieces that show both the vitality and destruction of the landscapes she photographs. Khalaf, through this process, depicts a dichotomy she is not unfamiliar with: moving from Baghdad to the United States at the age of twelve, she has experienced the shift between different realities herself. This divide that lies between worlds is especially felt when viewing her collection titled “Burnout,” depicting three landscapes burnt from the bottom up, leaving the top-half of the image intact. However, it is upon realizing the impact of the images as a whole that a viewer can begin to think of the line between burnt and unburnt less as a separation and more as a connection. It seems as though they bleed into each other.
Gallery director Glori Simmons and gallery manager Jared Mar worked together with Professor Karen Fraser and her museum studies class to curate the exhibit. Fraser’s background in photography, along with the environmental theme of the exhibit, guided the direction of the types of works that would be included. “There was a focus on Bay Area artists, being local, and having some degree of connection to focusing on issues tied to California,” Fraser said.
Binh Danh, a Bay Area local who teaches photography at San Jose State University, emphasizes the reflection of the self in nature. In his work “Yellowstone Falls,” the viewer can see their glassy reflection almost blend into the photographic scenery of the mountains, purposefully disrupting the common view of people being “separate” from nature. On the work and the effect, Binh wrote, “I want viewers to see themselves in the picture…They merge into the land, but don’t quite disappear into it.”
Simmons broke down the process of coordinating the message of the exhibit in a Zoom interview, describing her hope that the students may also see themselves in what they curated. “We haven’t shown photography in a while so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to draw off of [Fraser’s] expertise and to bring the students together to talk about the environment but through photographic processes,” she said.
Simmons also explained the emphasis on bringing in new perspectives around landscape photography that challenge the usual conception of the practice. The goal of understanding environmental justice and space through diverse perspectives was an important aspect of the exhibit.
The exhibition has been available to view since Nov. 30 and will be open at Thacher Gallery in Gleeson Library until Feb. 20.