at the Museum of Art and History, Lancaster (through July 15) Opening Reception, Saturday, May 12 from 4-6PM by Genie Davis
A beautiful and evocative series of photographs form the centerpiece of a stunning exhibition at the Museum of Art and History, Lancaster, which explores things left behind in the desert. These “things” are not just physical artifacts but the remnants of dreams, fragments of memories, and even splinters of passing light. Osceola Refetoff’s vivid, electrifying infrared photographs are joined by historical objects from MOAH’s permanent collection, and accompanied by lyrical writing from historian Christopher Langley. It is a multi-media exhibition in the best sense, approaching and exploring the desert it illuminates from all angles.
The exhibition is a first for Langley and Refetoff in a museum setting, although, as Refetoff explains, the pair had an art exhibition together as High & Dry at the LA Art Association in 2013, and have shown work at a range of area galleries. Land Artifacts is certainly their most ambitious collaboration to date.
“This exhibit, High & Dry: Land Artifacts, says Langley, “is the first full realization of our work together in this cross-platform project. Photographs, words, audio-video media, historical artifacts, syndication through our partnership with KCET Artbound, and the physical exhibition: all are brought together to communicate our vision of the desert to others.”
The pair are excited to be the first artists to include objects from MOAH’s permanent collection with their work.
“It is the Museum of Art & History after all, so we wanted to connect the images and words to a historical context reaching up to items collected in the local desert this year,” Refetoff notes.
The lush infrared photography, evocative words and historic objects together add up to an exhibition that visually and emotionally transports the viewer to the wide-open spaces of the desert, and invites one to experience the openness, the emptiness, and the fragile marks left by man on the beautiful but unforgiving landscape.
The exhibition also includes an interactive element for viewers: a time capsule. Visitors are invited to bring an object to place in it.
“The idea behind the time capsule is to get people to think about the history we are currently writing in the desert, and the artifacts that we’ll be leaving as our personal legacy to future generations,” Refetoff relates.
Langley adds, “We want people to think about what they want for our deserts and how they want to be remembered. What small object can they leave behind that will represent one of the very best things about their lives at this moment in history?”
For Refetoff and Langley, one of the very best things about their lives is exploring the desert itself; the hauntingly evocative images and stories that make up this exhibition are the legacy they leave. Whether it’s a stark white church in the fading town of Trona, boxcars weaving sinuously through a sandy track, an abandoned cabin, a lonely road, or windblown sand sifting across a highway like the shreds of ghosts, the wonder, loss, and harsh blessing of the desert are beautifully conveyed by both artists.
Refetoff asserts, “As a photographer, the easiest and most enjoyable part is tripping across the desert capturing images of the staggering natural beauty and experiencing the diverse communities scattered across remote areas. But I’d be surprised if those adventures accounted for more than 1 or 2 percent of the time it takes to manage the project, develop and print the photographs, edit the content for syndication,and all the other administrative work that goes into sustaining a long- term project of this scale.”
The project reaches beyond the encompassing exhibition at MOAH to include a video created as part of the pair’s long-term collaboration with KCET’s Artbound, and a catalog of the show.
Langley and Refetoff are basically starting a conversation with viewers about the desert itself, and the choices to be made about its development.
According to Langley, “We love the desert and hope we can help people see its beauty and value. We want our viewers, like ourselves, to learn from what has been left behind there to understand and know ourselves better. We want everyone to think deeply about their relationship with these arid lands of ours.”
Refetoff concurs, “Great hope, ambition, and grand ideals have long been associated with the iconic vistas of the American West. Yet for most of the last couple hundred years, these epic landscapes have been primarily used for mining, military exercises, and waste disposal. Only recently has there been a growing awareness that deserts are a significant natural resource worthy of appreciation and preservation.”
Both artists are concerned about the rapidity with which deserts today are being deployed for industrial-sized wind and solar installations.
“While we’re in favor of California’s leadership in developing renewable energy sources,” says Refetoff, “I feel it’s important people understand the massive scale of these operations, and the long term effect they will have on our arid landscapes. Our hope is that engaging people with this information may lead to more thoughtful decisions about where and how these facilities are deployed, and how we plan on addressing them once their service life has expired.”
Refetoff’s and Langley’s work has a strong sense of activism in it, but without pushing any didactic agenda. Rather, their activism – or support of the desert itself and its raw, sometimes painful beauty – is inherent in their photography, writing and love of the arid and open landscape.
“In many ways, this time in the desert is a time of challenge as well as possibility,” Langley tells us. “We have borrowed these lands from our grandchildren and we want everyone to be willing to shoulder the responsibility to return them in better condition when the time comes. If you stay or return to the desert periodically, a bond strengthens and connects you viscerally to it. It comes naturally.”
Refetoff feels the name ‘activist’ is overly politicized, and says, “From the inception, our goal has been to present a nuanced view of California’s deserts to an intersectional audience that includes other artists, academics, land managers, decision makers, citizens at large, and most importantly – by appearing in local publications like The Inyo Register, The Sun Runner, and Eastside Magazine – the residents of the small desert communities that will be most impacted by the developments that lie ahead.” He believes that the best way to approach such a diverse audience is to make the material accessible and entertaining, and to let viewers draw their own conclusions about what serves the interests of the vast resource of the desert.
The exhibition at MOAH is indeed entertaining, with the visual heft of Refetoff’s photographs creating an experience for viewers that is both dream-like and hyper-realistic. Working in black and white, the exhibition has a ribbon of noir suspense running through it, as if the sands and roads and human detritus were part of a desert movie set.
“This is the first time I’ve exhibited a body of work comprised of all black and white, infrared photography. For those familiar with my past work, it’s exciting to have the opportunity to showcase a very different aesthetic to my saturated, Kodachrome color work.”
Refetoff notes that on the most basic level, black and white photography appeals to him for its “formalist attributes, and the emphasis of shape and composition in the absence of color. Almost all my black and white photography is infrared, but I tend to create images that present as traditional black and white exposures, not hitting you over the head with the inherent strangeness that often characterizes the medium.”
Indeed, it is more the intensity of the shadows and the differentiation between dark and light that is the most recognizable feature of these photographs, which have been carefully culled from a collection of only-infrared work from Refetoff’s work with Langley over the past five years, and printed specifically for this exhibition.
“From a practical point of view, infrared photography makes the skies very dark, and clouds – when there are clouds – are very pronounced. Generally, landscape photographers avoid the middle of the day, favoring ‘magic hour’ light and shadow. Well, that leaves a lot of light on the table,” Refetoff laughs. “And while I love ‘good’ light as well, I believe the desert experience is much about the harsh sun directly overhead. Infrared photography not only feels like the right medium to portray many of my subjects, but it also allows me to work all day long, capturing the relentless intensity of the midday desert sun.”
Viewers will sense the heat of mid-day, the lengthening shadows of afternoon, the glittering light of morning in Refetoff’s work; images are writ large, etched deep and resonate in the heart and mind. You can almost feel the desert wind slice over your skin, taste the dust, smell the creosote emanating from his images.
Langley’s writing is equally expressive. “Osceola taught me that there are things you can show in photographs only and other things that are best captured in words and phrases. When I begin to write, his images can instruct me in ways I did not see for myself. I hope my words inform his images, his vision, and show the world what we might otherwise miss…the products are more than a mere sum of the words and visual images we brought together.”
Langley finds the desert experience stark and “seductively beautiful. It always remains mysterious to me and seduces me into thinking I can understand and fully capture its charms and dangers in words. That dream continues to remain exotic and elusive for me as a writer.” And yet he captures that dream with grace. “The desert, with its sparse terrain and challenging environment, presents a stark backdrop for human enterprise. Many of the material remnants scattered across these vast open spaces represent human failures…abandoned homesteads and industries that were simply unable to survive the harsh conditions…” he writes.
But what has survived is something special indeed – the desert’s soul, which may devour some and succor others, and regardless remains a force to be reckoned with, one both high and dry, perhaps. It is the desert’s power, poetry, and their overwhelming passion for it, that Refetoff and Langley depict, and which viewers will exult in experiencing through them.
Featured Image: Three Crosses. Rosamond, CA. 2013. All photographs courtesy of Osceola Refetoff
High & Dry: Land Artifacts runs from May 12 to July 15th
MOAH is located at 665 W. Lancaster Blvd, Lancaster, CA