The Icelandic landscapes in Kris Graves’ photographs are not pristine, not all of them. There’s a road here, a guardrail there, the lights of a distant town beneath a neon-green aurora borealis.
These images, along with one depicting a red-roofed white church isolated in a snowy field against a misty gray sky, differ markedly from the ones offering glimpses of unsullied nature — light-filled ice floes; an enormous, half-frozen crater lake; a river of waterfalls more fantastical than real.
The pictures that include traces of the built environment are comparatively devoid of incident and texture (the exception being the photo of the aurora, “Over Skagaströnd, Iceland” , which is dazzling), as if human presence has flattened nature out, exorcised it of its otherness. (“The nymphs,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Waste Land,” “are departed.”)
It’s a sad spectacle, the disillusion compounded by the popular perception of Iceland as an untarnished, geothermal paradise. We don’t like to be shaken out of our fantasies, to recognize the encroachment of the mundane or the partitioning of the wilderness into circumscribed zones, separate and apart from ordinary life.
Not that there is anything particularly awful going on in the images: the hillsides aren’t littered with plastic shopping bags; the waterways aren’t slimed with oil slicks. They simply remind us that our demands on nature are inexorable, and even if we responsibly steward its resources, our very existence drives untamed beauty farther from our sightlines.
Graves’ photographs of Iceland are currently on display in a solo show at Pocket Utopia called Discovered Missing. When I first encountered the images, I took them to be the work of an Icelandic artist — their confidence and precision seemed born of an intimate and longstanding familiarity with the country’s topography and light.
And while Kris Graves is decidedly not an Icelandic name, I was still startled to discover that he is in fact a lifelong albeit well-traveled New Yorker who began visiting Iceland three years ago. While it may be the most alien environment he has documented, Iceland’s anxious mix of the quotidian and the otherworldly echoes the forsaken beauty Graves has found in places as diverse as Kyoto, Berlin, Taos and the Mall of America, to name a few. Highly varied in subject and approach, his work is consistently stamped by an innately classical sensibility and a restless, insatiable eye.
The photographs in Discovered Missing, which were shot on 35mm film, are presented without frames or glass so that the surface becomes a significant part of their experience. The variegated, nearly achromatic panels evoke slabs of marble, cold and translucent. When an occasional color appears, such as the rusty brown that pops out of the purplish-gray crater wall in “Kerid, Iceland” (2012), it comes as a quiet shock.
In the photo of the aurora, “Over Skagaströnd, Iceland,” the matte texture and acid-green pigment of the light’s reflection in the Greenland Sea adheres to the picture plane while the aurora, though a brighter shade of the same color, recedes dramatically into pictorial space. Between the charged particles in the sky and their reflection in the water, banks of green-limned purple clouds float against gradations of ultramarine in painfully exquisite crepuscular light.
Do I wish that this image were solely of nature, without the strip of civilization intruding on the horizon — a meteorological dream state unpolluted by economy and infrastructure? Of course I do. The desire to idealize the landscape, excising any reminders of human intervention, has been a part of the genre since its inception.
The intriguing thing about this show is that the two versions of the landscape it presents, the real and the ideal, do not so much contrast or complement one another as underscore what each account lacks.
The unblemished wilderness, for all its magnificence, is also remote and desolate, a reminder of nature’s indifference. We are neither part of the picture nor invited into it. Our histories are written and forgotten outside of its frame.
On the other hand, when we see a guardrail or a road, or a church or a distant city, we take comfort in the knowledge that we are not far from our own kind, that no matter how far we’ve traveled, we are still linked to what we know — even as our presence deadens and demystifies what once was something rich and strange.
The two versions are now so close to each other that, if they haven’t already merged, they soon will. Graves’ images of Iceland, in their understated way, provide markers for the acceleration of human activity as it affects every cubic meter of the planet: untrammeled nature has vanished; society’s dominion is complete. The loss of Arcadia to an interconnected human race may be an unpalatable trade-off, but it’s the world we live in now.
Kris Graves: “Discovered Missing” continues at Pocket Utopia (191 Henry Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 27.