Far away from the laid-back vibe of the Santa Monica Pier and majestic views of Highway 101 lies another version of the California coastline. The antithesis of a seaside vacation, this austere (some might say bleak) landscape captures the attention of Washington DC-based artist Peter Dueker. california dust, now on view at Catholic University’s Salve Regina gallery, presents an alternative to postcard views of beach and sea while simultaneously questioning the connections between the natural and material realms.
Dueker’s artistic intent is left open to interpretation. The 21 photographs in the exhibition are presented without titles or wall text identifying locations, leaving the viewer to provide their own discourse. Four video works (not on view during this visit), described in the exhibition notes as “non-narrative”, add to the ethereal, open-ended dialogue between water and land. While the artist remains purposefully vague, two key similarities within the works begin to suggest the artist has more on his mind than simply capturing landscaped images.
First, notions of pristine wilderness are often upended by the inclusion of modern construction or manmade elements. Several works feature bridge spans, fencing or even power plants that inject linear counterpoints to the horizon lines, simultaneously toying with notions of traditional pictorial beauty. Other works feature elements more human in scale, including an old, wooden picnic table, charcoal bonfire remnants and folding beach chairs.
These more small-scale elements demonstrate a second similarity spanning the works: the absence of humanity. All but two of the works are devoid of people, and even in those two, humans fade into the background. Several of the images depict scenes where figures might have stepped out of the frame moments before Dueker captured the image, suggesting the legacy of humanity remains even after humans disappear.
In this regard, he depicts an interesting viewpoint: the intersection of nature and humanity without the humans. It is hard to find beauty in the shade of smokestacks and highway overpasses, but beauty is hardly Dueker’s intent. Nor is it correct to label the exhibition as a visual treatise on environmental destruction; that is too simple a narrative. Rather, it should be framed as a study of humanity’s legacy. This notion of a post-human world is a hot topic of contemporary philosophy and artistic inquiry, proposing questions such as what is our imprint upon the world, and what is it that we leave behind? With a lack of signage and text, Dueker’s answers are purposefully vague. Preferring the viewer to draw their own conclusions from his visual evidence is a perfectly acceptable approach to artmaking, but in this instance, an introductory statement would have provided viewers an easier entry point to converse with the work.
california dust is on view February 5 through March 30, 2018 at Catholic University’s Salve Regina Gallery. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner image: An untitled photograph (detail) by Peter Dueker. Image for East City Art by Eric Hope.
Editor’s note: The concluding paragraph has been edited for clarity