Review: Regina Mamou at Historic Water Tower Gallery (Artforum)

Archived at Artforum

   Regina Mamou,  Fieldwork (Silver and Brown   , 2012, Digital C-print, 40 x 50 in.

Regina Mamou, Fieldwork (Silver and Brown, 2012, Digital C-print, 40 x 50 in.

Regina Mamou’s latest architectural and landscape photographs depict bygone attempts to create utopian communities in America. Each work serves as a reminder that utopia literally means “no place.” Despite the large scale and clarity of the photographs, their evasive titles keep many of the depicted houses, monuments, and terrains teasingly unknown.

Even the compositions of the scenes formally contribute to this mysterious quality; most are angled upward, as in Site (Community Vineyard) (all works 2012), so that subjects (in this case, a barn overgrown with living and dead foliage) are partially cut out of the frame. Others are shot at night under the glare of artificial lights or on dreary, unsettlingly shadowless days, such as Lustgarten, which pictures mostly abandoned planter beds whose few remaining plants seem to be floating rather than rooted in the ground. The overall effect is one of approach rather than mere frontality. Particularly resonant is Mamou’s image of the Harmonist Cemetery, a mass-burial ground without headstones built by nineteenth-century esoteric Christians, situated on Native American burial mounds—simultaneously a rich cross-section of American spirituality and one not remembered as such a place at all. The mounds and trees in the photograph are positioned in the far distance, with an almost exaggerated expanse of flat lawn in the foreground, creating a sense of either arriving or departing rather than being at the site itself.

One way to read these studies is intimated in another set of exhibited photographs: three images titled Fieldwork taken in a fog so thick that only a few blurry hints of waves and trees around the edges make the watery shore comprehensible. The white fog becomes thickest at the center of each image, recalling divinatory crystal balls and Romantic landscape paintings. The formalism of overexposure in these images might also provide a general conceptual entry into the show. Certainly the visions that inspire attempts to create paradises on earth first appear powerful but they eventually die off in ephemeral flares that leave behind ruins still saturated with promise.