Keeping Faith with Observation
Documentary photography by Ian Teh at Jack Shainman; Paintings by Adele Alsop at Alexandre Gallery
China’s Three Gorges Dam, first envisioned by Mao Zedong in the 1970s, is under way. One and a quarter mile long and 575 feet high, it creates the largest artificial lake in the world extending nearly 400 miles, longer than Lake Superior. Upon completion in 2009, its 26 generators will produce energy equivalent to 18 nuclear power plants. The scale of displacement is staggering: leveled to wasteland are 13 cities, 400 towns and 1,352 villages . Gone, too, are thousands of historical sites and 75,000 acres of farmland.
Ian Teh, a Malaysian-born photographer living in London, documented the human side of this mammoth project. Beginning in 1999, he made four trips to the region to record the lives of uprooted residents during and after their evictions. His photo essay concentrates on individuals; published last year in the British photojournal “Blueprint” and exhibited in London and Hong Kong, it puts a personal face on the numbers. While there is beauty in many of these photos—ruins glimpsed through mists off the Yangtze, the mythic splendor of the landscape itself, a darkened tenement that turns surreal in reflected light, a young woman striding through rubble in red high heels—emphasis is documentary.
Isolated figures cling to the wreckage. One of the most poignant images is of an aproned cook bent in dejection in a vacant restaurant kept open for a few remaining squatters. The squalor of demolition, however, obscures the traditional conditions of this riverine world. We see a barber working in an open stall, electrical wires hanging where the facade should be; a basin sets on a frame with no visible source of running water. We do not know what was there before the wrecking ball. A flimsy model city, built for the dispossessed, gives no clue to what it replaced. The sight of families cramped without privacy into airless bunks on a boat bound for the eastern seaboard conceals the life left behind as well as the one that awaits them.
Resettlement of peoples unhoused by the dam is part of a broader migration of millions of Chinese from the countryside. Mr. Teh’s insistence on accompanying his photographs with statistics and commentary (on unemployment, official corruption or individual plights) invites comparison to Jacob Riis’ great study of a different migration, “How the Other Half Lives.” Riis used photography accompanied by reportage as a vehicle for social reform; he sought to relieve the misery of immigrants on the lower East side in the 1890s. But today along the Yangtze the displacement of persons is the reform. It is called modernization, a juggernaut against which individuals are no impediment. Mr. Teh’s witness to the dislocation is without consequence to those enduring it.
Evident here is the ruthlessness required by China’s determined self-transformation. That alone is reason to see these riveting—and cautionary— photographs. Depicted sites no longer exist; they are already swallowed by the water of the Yangtze.
Adele Alsop, a former student of Neil Welliver, lives and works in Utah. Her second show at Alexandre Gallery includes 12 paintings and an installation adapted from a stage set she designed for a community theater. Paintings divide between luscious still lifes and landscapes and several figurative tours de force.The pleasure of this show lie in the painting of redrock scenery, local vegetation and jaunty bouquets. These are lush, bouyant and engaging.
|Wild Flowers with Full Moon
“Wild Flowers with Full Moon” (2004), sets a glass jar of golden heliopsis and purple blooms in front of a desert landscape. Flower foliage merges with a line of cactus in the middle distance, locking them into a single verdant horizontal. Petals sink into the dry earth beyond or dance over it, depending on placement against shifting tones. Dark stamens, like stepping stones across the sand, carry the eye toward blue-purple mountains and a daytime moon punctuating the lively cerulean sky.
Ms. Alsop’s enthusiasm for the gestural feats of a loaded brush is contagious. So is the richness of her color and exuberant capacity to suggest fresh air. The central bouquet of “Snow Thunder” (2003) plays scraped transparent shadows against buttery brush strokes that register blossoms with surety and economy. She makes good use here of fine-grained linen which permits a full brush to glide over the surface yet has just enough tooth to hold trace color when pigment is knifed away. “Heart Self” (2003) floats a clear red flower across a line of white birches that rise in front of a snow-covered mountain. Truth of observation, fresh and persuasive, yields a subtle valentine to Georgia O’Keefe who frequently centered a disparate motif over a natural backdrop.
Prominently textured, Ms. Alsop’s monotypes have a topography all their own. Look at the tactile depth of “The Mountain Lion in the Cattails” (2003). Paper pressed onto high impasto lifts sufficient pigment for it to retain dimension . Effects are lovely, less dense than a painting but with greater materiality than familiar monotype. In both paintings and monotypes, she exploits transparencies to allow surfaces to breathe.
But something goes wrong in the figures. They have the provisional look of studio experiments painted by some one else. Detached from visual realities, Ms. Alsop’s expressiveness loses conviction. These are all unfelt oddities. Several versions of Imanja, a Brazilian sea goddess, have her standing on one rubbery leg imitating aTantric deity. The heroine of “Here I Come” (2004) is a sketchily winged female nude hovering like a darning needle over a lake of white paint. Ms. Alsop serves herself best—and beautifully—by keeping faith with what she observes.
“The Vanishing: Altered Landscapes and Displaced Lives on the Yangtze River” at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 West 20th Street, 212-645-1701). “Adele Alsop: New Paintings and an Installation” at Alexandre Gallery (41 East 57th Street, 212-755-2828).
First published in The New York Sun, March 31, 2005.
Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey