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Photographs by John Pfahl at Nina Freudenheim Gallery

Pfahls's photograph of the Lovelock Seed Company in Lovelock, Nevada.

Beauty Humor Nature Knowledge

Nonpareil photographer of the natural environment John Pfahl made a distinctive mark beginning around the 1970s with a series of “altered landscape” photos, nature scenes with added elements that subtly comment on—mimic, complement, contrast with—the nature elements. The emblematic photo of several ranks of frothy ebb-and-flow surf lines along a sandy beach, viewed from a grassy bluff above, on which the artist has laid out two skeins of fabric white lace, parallel to the surf lines. Or the photo of the Albright-Knox Greek Ionic columns and superimposed askew right angle dash lines.

Around the time the altered nature idea would have been gestating, Pfahl traveled about the country photographing unaltered nature scenes, but also altered scenes, but not by himself, that is, not altered by himself, but by some other, usually anonymous, hand. Found altered nature.

The negatives of the found altered scenes have lain in a box on a shelf for forty years, but were recently printed using digital technology. The resultant several dozen photos are currently on display at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery. And they are treasures.

They often constitute a kind of seeing against the grain. Seeing what is supposed to be invisible. Pink House depicts, in the foreground, a minimalist, modernist port-a-john, unobtrusive, functional, at the Canyon de Chelly site in Arizona, in the background, some of the cliff dwellings, minimalist, ancient, unobtrusive, functional. Even the unusual but rather lovely pale pink of the port-a-john plays off the spectacular pink-to-ochre tones of the cliffside rock and tucked-in dwellings.

The geological subtopic stratigraphy is a recurring motif and thematic. Or stratigraphy and its discontents. Based on the iron physical law of gravity, which decrees strict horizontality in the geological layering process, so that every aberration from the horizontal becomes a story wanting to be told.

As in the photo of a precarious-looking cement staircase (slowly succumbing to forces of gravity) affixed to a sheer rock face recording geological eons at the Garden of the Gods, Colorado. Including a contrastive inexplicably off-horizontal cement patch on the steps structure. Or the photo of a small-diameter water pipe—vertically oriented—suddenly sprouting from a stratigraphically variegated rock wall, then as suddenly disappearing into stone rubble at the base of the wall. Possibly to disguise the water pipe—camouflage it—someone has taken the trouble to paint it in many hues, to mimic along its length the different shades of the background rock. Or maybe just to embellish the pipe, to make it beautiful, much the way the rock wall is beautiful.

What the human hand makes is art, some of it more likely to be called so, but all of it art, as opposed to nature. Much interplay of and among these ideas in the found altered nature works. For example, in the photo called Vineyard Quilt, from Paso Robles, California, of rolling terrain sectioned into contiguous plots of tidy rows of vines in contrasting patterns of row orientation, different states of growth, cultivation, pruning, etc. Old vines and new.

Fine art references abound. A photo of the Lovelock Seed Company storage silos and conveyer pipes, Lovelock, Nevada, could be an abstract modernist study of basic solid geometry forms—cylinders, cones—by Charles Demuth. A photo of covered brush piles on a mountainside in Evergreen, Colorado, looks like a Christo wrap-art project. There are several painted mural examples. A realistic-looking sylvan scene on a concrete block wall of a gasoline station in Ovid, Colorado. And a more abstract bare trees in a meadow painting on a deteriorating barn in Occanum, New York.

A photo called Red Seascape, Pismo Beach, California, from above and behind some sort of seawall construction/confinement overlooking ocean shoreline and surf recalls the artist’s own surf and lace Altered Landscape work.

One of the most out-and-out beautiful works and a remarkable visual discovery experience looks at first like a view from a distance of several perfectly horizontal courses of rock outcrop on an arid region mountain, that on closer view turns out to be train cars on a track at the base of the mountain, everything doubled by reflection in the mirror surface of some lake or river in the foreground. Columbia River, possibly, near Wenatchee, Washington.

The title of the exhibit is Beauty Humor Nature Knowledge, from an improbably poetic sculptural work of some unknown artist in wood and words in the vicinity of Cypress Knee, Florida. The exhibit continues through April 9.

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