Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

You’ve Got Junk: Benny van der Wal’s Desert Trashscapes

When Benny van der Wal started collecting junk mail with the beginning of an artistic project in mind, he had no idea that only a year later he would have collected over 55 pounds of waste. Everyone has received ads and coupons that pile in a corner or are thrown away, but few want to imagine the scale of that junk, piling up in landfills around the world. For his exhibit Desert Trashscapes, van der Wal places and photographs shredded paper, rusty cans, shotgun shells, old TVs , and other discarded consumables in the Utah landscapes. Raised in Stockholm, Sweden, van der Wal creates images that reflect a transplant’s careful appreciation of the state’s beautiful and unique geography. Yet, with the disrespectful interventions into nature that he documents in his photographs (like vandalizing the desert soil with red spray paint), van der Wal provokes his audience into thinking about the state of human wastefulness and its effect on the environment.

When you step into the first room of Finch Lane Gallery, the photographs that greet you on the opposite wall are van der Wal’s three shredded junk-mail trees. In “Shredded Junkmail Tree 1,” the electric blue of the desert sky and soft pastels of light reflecting off the Great Salt Lake are aesthetically pleasing features of what might be a standard landscape photograph. Van der Wal resists the urge to simply celebrate the landscape, however, and inserts the evidence of his junk-collection experiment — at the center of each work sits shredded bits of colorful paper formed into the shape of a gnarled tree. In these junk-mail pieces, the waste interventions look minor compared to the grand scale of the landscape, the color palette of the paper trees even reflecting distant foothills and piles of salt. These images serve to introduce a theme, but with each successive photograph in the exhibit, the garbage’s juxtaposition against the natural setting becomes increasingly more uncomfortable.

Each of the rest of the photographs in the series play with increasing numbers of discarded and out-of-place objects, with van der Wal putting pieces of human-made trash close to natural objects with similar shapes and colors. In “Desert Fungi,” red shotgun shells are scattered across a field of sagebrush. Bundles of shells, with glinting metal bases face-up to the sky, are the tops of mushrooms, in every way out of place in the dryness of a western desert.

In “TVs Grow on Trees in the Mojave,” van der Wal produces another hybrid of the natural and human-made by balancing an old television on the bark of a hardy desert plant. Similarly, “Nothing on TV” shows the skeletal remains of an old living-room set, the setting sun glinting through the hole where a screen should be.

Pieces like “Recycling at the Great Salt Lake,” an image of rusted bottle caps in the shape of the recycling symbol, approach heavy-handed territory, but feature texture and color contrasts that make for interesting images nonetheless.

If you’ve driven through enough rural western landscape, you’ve seen odd objects dumped on the side of the road—evidence of human’s carelessness or perverse pleasure at marking up pristine wilderness. Here, van der Wal manages to compose them into visually interesting images that speak about the unfortunate truth of our civilization’s impact on the natural world.

Benny van der Wal’s Desert Trashscapes is at Finch Lane Gallery through November 18. Showing concurrently, Wait Here Please, an exhibition of paintings and installation by Lexi Rae Johnson.

This article appeared in the October 2016 edition of 15 Bytes.

Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places.

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