Baltz photos bring art to environmentalism

March 21, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Lewis Baltz's photographic group "San Quentin Point" (1985) shows a land parched, cracked, strewn with refuse, made sick unto death and hideous by the ravages of man. But here and there a poor little wisp of a plant pushes up out of the ground. It has scant hope of long life, but there it is, because the earth keeps on trying.

"New Environments/New Projects: Photographs by Lewis Baltz" at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (through July 28) is surely an indictment of all of us for what we do to our world; but it's more moving than a simple indictment, because it gives the earth itself human characteristics, endows it with courage and fortitude in the face of what happens to it.

This show consists of two kinds of Baltz's work: series or groups of small black and white photographs See ART, 6E, Col. 5ART, from 1E(some as small as 8 by 10 inches) of blighted semi-urban areas such as "San Quentin Point," "Near Reno" (1986) and "Candlestick Point" (1989), and large single-color photos (up to 4 by 6 feet) of man-made environments such as "Rule without Exception" (1988), "Kawasaki 1A" and "Kawasaki 1B" (both 1989).

The juxtapositions of these two types create a counterpoint of comment on contemporary life. The black and white groups are messy, chaotic, jumbled with everything from the front of a television set that looks as if it's been shot up to a dead animal crawling with maggots. They range from ugly to disgusting and they deal with the sickness and death of this once Edenic land. But they're alive, because death is part of life, and life is just as messy as these photographs.

The color photos give us just the opposite. Whether it's "Rule without Exception" with its looming buildings and automobile lights or the silent, high-tech interiors of the "Kawasaki" photos, the images are cold, impersonal, forbidding. They reinforce the urgency expressed in the black and white groups, for they imply a time when the earth has been destroyed and, if there are people left, they will have to live in artificial environments, whether here or on some other planet.

Baltz's work is not only interesting for the ways in which it can be read, however. His groupings, and especially the enormous group of 84 photographs that comprise "Candlestick Point" (a few of which are in color) have interior compositions within the overall composition. A crescent of shoreline brings a photographic row to a neat close, turning the viewer back the way he came. A series of photos of hanging foliage suggests a weeping chorus. Another series centered on a tree deals with the tensions and harmonies of composition itself.

Baltz's photographs are not pretty, but they have a lot to communicate.

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