In Giorgione’s enigmatic “The Tempest,” probably the most famous image of lightning in art, an electric blue bolt slices open a stormy cloudscape, dividing the landscape in two. It’s title alerts us to look for visual contrasts and symbolic conflicts, appropriate and easily found in a work done in Renaissance Venice, a city-state separated from war-torn, fractious Italy by geography, economics, history, and especially painting—an art wherein Venice alone resisted the power of Florence to determine the future. Comparing the turmoil racking the entire world in the 21st century to events in Giorgione’s Europe at the start of centuries of religious and ideological war, reassurance and reasons for hope can be hard to find—least of all in our contemporary art.
Consider, then, “Umbilicus”—one of 20 landscape photographs by Enrique Vera, 15 in black and white and five in color, currently on exhibit at Mestizo—in which a bolt of lightning emerges from a high cloud, descends an open sky, and disappears into a range of desert mountains. Unlike Giorgione, Vera uses the long stretch of light in his photo to stitch together earth and sky; for him, weather, like the cord that connects mother to child, is how the sky nourishes the earth. Another pair of photos nearby, “Cortina Rompepicos I & II,” capture the cycle of rainwater caught behind a dam at the mouth of the spectacular Río Santa Catarina gorge, shown first as a torrent of water churning powerfully through its handsome architecture, and later looking like an empty theater, the lights off and the audience gone home, after the sudden desert rains, familiar as well to Utahns, have ended and this huge project, necessary to keep the downstream city of Monterrey from flooding, looms over a now-dry riverbed.
In these works, human lives and concerns are implied rather than seen directly, a choice made by the artist and his curators, who in selecting his most imposing images have focused on landscapes that present northeast Mexico almost as it might have been seen by the photographers of Group f/64, the seven San Francisco-based artists who revolutionized photography almost a century ago, and one of whom, Edward Weston, was in turn influenced by years spent living and photographing in México. Others of Vera’s photos, not shown here, feature his friends hiking and cycling with him through Coahuila and Nuevo Leon, parts of Northeast México relatively unfamiliar to tourists. Most artists probably begin with art and find subjects that appeal to them, but there is no reason a resonant subject can’t just as well motivate an enthusiastic or concerned witness to take up art.
Enrique Vera was born in Peru—a place people travel thousands of miles to photograph—but took up his camera in response to life in Northeast México, a land of national parks, rugged mountains that in satellite views resemble orbital images of Mars, and scenic landscapes that he sees as perhaps only someone raised elsewhere can see. Like the American West, his land offers endless vistas, like the black mountains seen from even higher ground in “La Popa” and “El Patosi,” where the ranges are visually separated by ribbons of white clouds. The cracked, desolate desert soil on which nothing but a paradoxical seashell appears in “Labertinos” sets the stage for romantic ruins like “Hacienda del Muerto (House of Death),” crumbling adobe walls pierced by the setting sun, and surprising bits of geology or topography like “Chipinque,” a forest shrouded in mist, or the petrified sand dunes of “Dunas de Yeso.”
In theory, we look at each work of art individually; a bad painting by a famous painter is still a bad painting, while quality can stand in isolation. In reality, though, reputation and the aura of greatness are the original resumé, and a familiar body of work is like the knowledge-over-time that makes an old friend dependable. Enrique Vera, a young artist who shows both innate talent and dedication, is thereby doubly promising. Yet a small, carping voice in the critic’s head reminds us that in the coming years the trails he loves to hike and cycle could lead him somewhere besides the gallery. This is particularly an issue with photography, an art—if it really is an art—currently facing challenges none has ever faced before. The digital camera and its accompanying avalanche of software have made it possible not only for anyone to take a credible photo, but to carry a camera virtually every minute of one’s life: to make photography, in effect, a full-time avocation in which traditional knowledge and skills are supplied by machines. Any one artist notwithstanding, where does that leave the entire medium?
In more practical terms, the kind of photographic documentary of the visible world seen here achieved a kind of apotheosis in work like that of Gary Winograd, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander, and is now suffering from feeling exhausted. Today’s photographers, figures like Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, are more likely to fabricate their own subjects to photograph. Responsibility has shifted in a subtle way, from the choice of what to shoot at to something more comprehensive, like what artists in more traditional media were expected to do: imagine and create. All the same, commercial art galleries, the shelves of libraries, and the walls of museums can be seen to argue that there is nothing new that can’t be turned into a fad, but that we will never grow tired of looking at the world together. For those who agree, Enrique Vera offers a unique way of seeing a part of the world that, despite its relative accessibility, remains largely unknown, and that, whatever the future holds for it, will always be available to our eyes just as he found it.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.