Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Steven Gray’s Photography Stumbles Through the Ruins of the American Dream

Steven Gray, “Negations 7”

If a doorway is seen to be standing all by itself, without a building or even a single wall to justify its presence, it’s probably either a ruin or a monument. Or both. Door frames are normally built stronger in order to survive despite their inherent weakness, since a portal necessarily disrupts the continuity that otherwise makes a wall structurally sound. While this makes the popular urging to stand in one during an earthquake some of the worst advice ever, yet if such an opening has survived the destruction of its host building, it may well have been deliberately preserved, for instance in response to its symbolic power. Such is probably true in the case of “Negations 7,” one of a dozen photographs by Steven Gray currently being exhibited at Wow Atelier, a versatile, primarily architectural collective housed in an appropriately vintage building near the Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake.

When William Shakespeare wrote that “the past is prologue,” he meant it in an appropriately theatrical sense: the past precedes and sets the stage for us, the future is for us to create. Today, however, we often hear something far more threatening when we hear his words. Evidence of the past that we see around us, in the form of ruins, suggest how our present will inevitably, one day, appear to the future. Gray, an artist and frequent photographer, in his most recent project, Negations, takes this idea one step further. The isolated Western ruins he captures with his camera make the argument that there may well not be a future worth living, or inevitably any future at all, if things continue as they are. Analogous to his classic stone piles and crumbling wooden structures are the towns he cites surrounding large cities like Phoenix that, contrary to the promise of a bird that rises again from its own ashes, have exhausted their wells and other water supplies and are, in effect, already doomed, urban equivalents of the walking dead. 

Steven Gray, “Negations 2”

A distinguishing feature of Gray’s photography is the way he tends to forego asymmetrical compositions in favor of more weighty exposition. This may be due in part to recognition that his primarily architectural subjects are better served by central placing and perpendicular camera angles, rather than by a presentation that obscures the facts in favor of visual dramatics, chiaroscuro, and the isolation of details. A more important motive may be his academic background, which focused on Philosophy, in particular the 19th-century climax of Idealism in the work of Hegel, whose logical approach was largely forgotten after his death, but was revived and became highly influential beginning in the 1970s — in time for Gray to encounter it. Hegel’s thinking would support “Negations 2,” in which the view of an old mine on the right is reflected in a window on the left, while the transparency of the glass also allows viewers to see what’s behind it, thus presenting a visual dialog, or dialectic, of at least three parts.

Steven Gray, “Negations 1”

In “Negations 1,” Gray further demonstrates that a seemingly static view can actually achieve compelling results. Here the camera looks through a pair of windows on opposite sides of a roofless, heavily weathered, seemingly abandoned, almost certainly adobe building. What may sound like a formula for visual boredom is instead brought to life by a shadow cast by an unseen wall on the right that falls diagonally across the view through the near window, while the far window cuts away half of it, replacing it with a view of the desert and a horizon that creates a third horizontal, which both repeats those created by the two windows’ sills and forms a triangle with the diagonal. After all that, the eye can set to work appreciating the textures and crack patterns in the exterior clay. In spite of gravity and the weight of the components, it’s not a static image.

Returning to “Negations 7” with these realizations in mind, at least two facts may be observed. One is that the door, with its Tudor arch, isn’t really centered in the composition. Rather, it’s slightly to the left to compensate for the bricks that remain attached on the right side. Similarly, the elements that lead the eye into the arch, like dark patches in the snow and clouds in the sky, make for a lively dance. For Gray’s purpose, however, the important fact is the sheer physicality of what remains here. Years of cinematic Westerns have taught us to expect flimsy wooden sidewalks and square facades that in reality are paper-thin fronts on what are little more than sheds. Who would be surprised that whole towns of such uncertainty have evaporated, leaving behind only ghosts?

Yet while that image is not false, and in fact is included among the images here, it has to be taken in context with settlements that strove for permanence, only to fall by the wayside. It gives Gray’s overall title, “Negations,” new meaning to know that the romantic ruins of Rhyolite, Nevada, one of which appears in “Negations 5,” include prestigious banks that owe their aesthetic character to having been dynamited in order to recover their valuable steel beams. Surely the salvage value of bricks had as much as anything to do with the destruction and disappearance chronicled in “Negations 7.” When these tentative steps towards settling the desert proved overly ambitious, they were abandoned with prejudice, even as the photographs argue that the intentions were serious, nonetheless. Gray’s realism prompts us to ask us if the 20th century’s bold moves into places only apparently less challenging were any better considered. When the estimated twenty thousand residents of Rhyolite lost their livelihoods due to a financial crisis, they moved on. What will their descendants do if this time it’s the ecology that collapses?

Steven Gray, “Negations 11.” Some works achieve such perfect eloquence that words can only diminish them.


Steven Gray: Negations, WOW Atelier, Salt Lake City, through July 15

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