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Photographs by Victoria Sambunaris at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Untitled (Red containers, wet ground), Fort Worth, Texas (2000). Collection Lannan Foundation.

Taxonomy of a Landscape

Artistically, Victoria Sambunaris wants it all. And pretty much gets it all in her photos. The spectacular and the banal. The whole picture.

Her show currently at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is called Taxonomy of a Landscape. The photos cover a gamut from sublime views of Western States geological formations—for example, the twin sheer rock cliffs of the Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas—to ranks of parked semi-trailers at a trucking facility somewhere in Wisconsin.

Her practice is to make one long car trip a year to a given section of the country, photographing along the way, in conjunction with serious studying up on the trip area, reading books and other literature, poring over maps of all types, and ultimately talking with as many locals as possible. In addition to the photos, the show includes a selection of the artist’s prep material books and pamphlets and her trip journals, videos of interactions with folk along the way, and a variety of collected items, including geological specimens and folk art items, often with a distinct regional flavor. A wirework sculpture of a scorpion. And historical artifacts. Indian arrowheads. All part of the picture. The definition of the terrain.

But it’s the photographs that matter. (Photography being the perfectly apposite medium to her artistic vision. For just as she wants it all, the camera sees it all.)

Photographs that show trucks and semi-trailers in a row in the middle distance, but close up, scrub field acres of dandelions gone to seed, but for the moment, for want of a good stiff breeze, retaining their homely feathery seed bolls. Or a line of railroad cars amid a notably featureless prairie landscape, but then featuring—as we see because the artist saw it and captured it with her camera—a luxuriant growth of prairie grass extending no doubt as far as an eye could see in every direction.

This is environmental art, but subtly so, and all the more powerful for the subtlety. Among the more spectacular (and beautiful) photos are several of huge-scale open pit mining operations. The Bingham Canyon copper mine, Utah. Open pit? More like open mountain. More like obliterate the mountain. You can’t help comparing the Bingham Canyon photo with the Santa Elena Canyon photo. As magnificently eternal as those twin rock mountains seemed on our initial viewing of that photo, we could make them disappear. (And would, if the rock was found to contain a sufficient quantity of some valuable mineral.)

Another photo is of a vast expanse of uranium tailings—acres and acres of more or less uniform-size gray rocks infilling a mountain valley—the detritus from a uranium mining and extraction operation. Dim in the distance you can just see the uranium hills half demolished by the mining.

Other photos are of the Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, oil drilling operations, including several depictions of the preposterous pipeline running on stilts across the rugged tundra landscape.

But her recent trips mostly have been to the Southwest, particularly Mexican border areas. Attracted no doubt by the socio-political-economic issues related to the contemporary right-wing panic attacks over immigration and immigrants, legal or no. Part of the landscape, too.

In a general statement about her art and artistic aims, Sambunaris says, “My photographs are meant to inspire awe and wonder of a particular terrain and to catalyze grander questions about landscape and our place within it.”

This is the Sambunaris’ first solo exhibition at a major American art venue. The exhibit represents a collaboration between the Albright-Knox and the Lannan Foundation, Santa Fe, New Mexico, which owns many of the photos in the exhibit. According to the Lannan Foundation’s mission statement, based on its “understanding that globalization threatens all cultures and ecosystems, the Foundation is particularly interested in projects that encourage freedom of inquiry, imagination, and expression.” Such as this one.

The Victoria Sambunaris exhibit continues through January 22.

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