Altered Landscape Photography
If you were to read through the arts listings, see the words, “group show from the permanent collection,” and proceed to yawn, I wouldn’t call you a philistine. Sometimes those exhibits are best saved for academics. But this one—a slice of the Nevada Museum of Art’s Altered Landscape Collection—is engaging enough to recommend wholeheartedly to anyone.
First off, the museum has gone to some lengths to claim a spot in the global art world, and amassing this collection has been one of its key strategies. Plans started in the ’90s, before the NMA was in its current building.
“There was a recognition that you need to have a collection, a scholarly focus, relevant in your community and also beyond,” said curator Ann Wolfe.
The NMA has other permanent collections, too, but this is the one that much of its identity is built around. Wolfe said it contains about 2,000 works so far. They’re purchased through galleries, art fairs, auctions or directly from artists. The images are far more likely to depict humans’ impact on the landscape than to present an Ansel Adams-style idealized view of it. Scholars from other states and countries request access to the collection, and pieces from it are sometimes lent out.
“We just had maybe 15 loans go to the Pompidou in Paris,” said Wolfe.
For art nerds like me, having a collection like this one in town is a cultural rallying point akin to having our own major league baseball team or our own style of pizza. (If you happen to be new or reading from out of town, we have neither of those.)
Every so often, the curators pull out a selection from the Altered Landscape Collection to show here in Reno. The last version was in 2011.
In the current version, photographs spanning several decades are hung “salon style,” in grids. This kind of presentation can come off as chaotic, but here it’s carefully thought out and seems to encourage visitors to linger, converse and even sketch.
The photos depict plenty of evidence of environmental degradation, and they also convey the grandiosity and appeal of landscapes themselves. This combination makes for a lot of entry points. Viewers inclined to see landscape art through the lenses of, say, politics, aesthetics or geography, will all find plenty to chew on.
A few highlights stand out easily, such as filmmaker Wim Wenders’ wall-length picture of a meteor crater in Australia.
Other, quieter highlights are in danger of getting lost in the shuffle. When Catherine Opie’s poetic black and white photos of Los Angeles freeways started circulating in the mid ’90s, they sparked some interesting conversations. Opie had been previously known for big, bold images about lesbian identity. This subtler imagery re-casting Southern California freeways as quiet and architecturally graceful had the art world arguing about whether Opie did or didn’t have a responsibility to remain bold and personal in choosing her subject matter. None of this background is visible in Opie’s one tiny print in this show.
Of course it would be impossible to fit all of the rich and revealing context and history behind every image into a group exhibit—and the ideas and images that are on display here make for a satisfying range. But I do have my fingers crossed. Museum reps are considering related events such as lectures or gallery talks. They’re not on the schedule yet, but I’m hoping for lots.