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Portraits of man vs. land

January 21, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

MAYBE you've never yearned for a tour of Mingo Junction, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant and the rest of industrial Ohio. Maybe you were ready to start 2007 without an understanding of the interplay of nature and architecture in the show caves of Kentucky, Missouri and New Mexico. And maybe you've never cared about just what goes on in that odd little Culver City institution that calls itself CLUI.

Yet still you may find yourself absorbed by "Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America With the Center for Land Use Interpretation," a coffee-table chronicle of land-use curiosities edited by Matthew Coolidge and Sarah Simons with an essay by Ralph Rugoff.

The hallmarks of this 264-page, 8-by-10-inch paperback volume (Distributed Art Publishers; $34.95) are deadpan descriptions and anonymous photography, all detailing weird, wonderful and (mostly) horrific things Americans have done to their landscape, including deliberately flooding the town of Neversink, N.Y., and practice-bombing Nevada.

And here's the key to the CLUI way: Coolidge (CLUI's founder-director) and Simons would never use the word "horrific" in print, and probably not "ugly" either. In fact, their work stands out first for their embrace of territory that most Americans have either stopped seeing or never thought to look for and second for their refusal to make judgments.

On Page 201, we learn that the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert includes "one of the nation's most mysterious and unusual field test sites, Dugway Proving Ground. Dugway is the nation's primary chemical and biological weapons testing and training site, and it combines the microscopic world of its chemical and biological laboratories with large-scale testing and training outdoors." Then -- without a hint of protest or justification -- it's on to the next location.

Coolidge and Simons have gone to great lengths to tell you where these things happen and what these places look like. (In this case, flat and bleak, with enough aerial hardware to make a ham-radio operator's heart go pitter-pat.) But when it comes to forming an opinion or guessing at what these folks are driving at, that's our responsibility.

This approach has led many to decide that CLUI and its uninflected facts are really an epic art project in bureaucratic drag. Coolidge sidesteps the subject, but how else to explain the introduction by Rugoff, who directs a London gallery, or the grants CLUI gets from outfits such as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts?

Anyway, whether it's art or not, it's provocative and even devious in an unprovable sort of way. In these days of polarized politics, hollering television heads and bullying bloggers, what could be more subversive than stacked facts and withheld opinions?

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