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Richard Misrach
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, California
Recommendation by DeWitt Cheng

Richard Misrach, "Untitled (9740 #FC)," 2007, photograph. © Richard Misrach, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Continuing through May 30, 2015

The seemingly contradictory aims of visual pleasure and social commentary are both served in the photography of Richard Misrach, who has explored both scenic landscape and sociopolitical analysis, sometimes separately, at other times simultaneously, for four decades. "Being(s)" is a mini-retrospective of his work, with fourteen prints, most of them large and in color, and made over the past fifteen years. Viewers who saw Misrach’s show at the Oakland and Berkeley Art Museums a few years ago will note the absence of images of devastations from the Oakland hills fire, but those who saw his New Orleans show at the Cantor Arts Center will recognize “Night Fishing Near Bonne Carré Spillway, Norco, Louisiana“ (1998), a striking image of a man at water’s edge, frozen in time, watching an oil tanker blurred by motion passing above and behind.

Four early works, shot with film but digitally enlarged (hence the double dates), display the artist’s evolution — and consistency. “Self-Portrait at Night, White Sands, New Mexico” (1976/2014) depicts softly illuminated sand dunes and the phantom figure of the photographer. The figures in “Kodak, Donna, Debra, Jake, Oregon Coast” (1984/2015) — two adults, a child and a dog — become hazy silhouettes framed by rock formations. “Tourists, Utah” (1994/2015) presents a rocky sandstone landscape in umber dwarfing two minuscule figures in white. Tiny humans amidst the immensity of the ocean recur in more recent works as well: “Untitled (January 17, 2015, 6”32PM)” (2015) features a solitary surfer contrasted with the horizontal striations of wave swells; “Untitled (#671.04)” (2004/2007) has a frolicking couple enjoying a tropical idyll; and “Untitled (November 8, 2013, 5:44PM)” (2013) focuses on a lone floating swimmer who makes me think of Herman Melville’s fallen, abandoned Pequod cabin boy, Pip.

Several works play with tonal or color reversals. “Untitled (9740 #FC)” (2007/2014) contrasts its stark white bathers against black sand and sky. A color-reversed bleached figure at the seashore in “Untitled (Psychedelic Lance #2)” (2007/2015) watches radiantly silhouetted shorebirds riding the waves darkened by an offstage, presumably black sun.

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