How the rest was won 

Manifest Destiny revisited at Goatsilk Gallery

“Take Wyoming past West Side Lanes, look for the orange door. On your left.”

So goes the response I’ve offered many times to people looking for Goatsilk Gallery, one of several art venues to open in Missoula over the last year. The newest exhibition, Space Vacancy, is proof that Goatsilk is worth finding. On view throughout April, Space Vacancy is an exciting collection of large-scale photographs by newcomer Baldomero Fernandez.

You may have unwittingly seen Fernandez’s work elsewhere. As a fashion photographer based in New York City, his images have appeared widely in American magazines like Essence and Details, but also abroad in the British publication Flux, and Magnet, out of Japan. He has photographed personalities from punk rock band The Offspring to National Book Award winner Gloria Whelan. His commercial clients include IBM, Macy’s, and Warner Brothers Records.

The photographs at Goatsilk Gallery, however, shed the glamour and pretense of the commercial world of fashion. These prints are honest and direct views of the contemporary American landscape. Fernandez is well traveled, and created these images on numerous journeys throughout the country between 1999 and 2003. Whether set in Miami, Las Vegas, or Pigeon Forge, Tenn., his clear and consistent viewpoint makes them strangely familiar. Though Fernandez cites the influences of modern and contemporary artists like Edward Hopper, James Turrell, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Fernandez is not opposed to the idea that his work can be tied to some of the first American landscape photographs, made in the 1860s and ’70s by “explorer-artists” venturing westward.

The artists of this era crystallized the ideals of Manifest Destiny, and worked with the grim assumption that the First Nations would quickly disappear in the wake of westward expansion. On Thomas Moran’s canvases, the West was a vast land of unlimited resources ripe for industry’s harvest. Through William Henry Jackson’s camera lens, the landscape was pure and innocent, a place through which no human had ever passed. Hindsight tells us that these ideas are not true. The reality was more tragic. Photography is by nature contradictory, and the conflict between image and reality was unavoidable even in the earliest years.

In Space Vacancy, Fernandez employs some of the tactics of his predecessors, contradicts others, and seems to revel in the ensuing dialogue about the evolution of experience, potential and destiny. The son of Cuban immigrants, Fernandez embraces the spirit of Manifest Destiny even as, or perhaps because, he exploits its methods. In response to the suggestion that his work is linked to the campaign of exploration, he responds affirmatively: “I have always wanted to be an astronaut.”

As often was the case with historical landscapes, Fernandez’s images are devoid of people. But they are rich in evidence of human intervention. He counters the endless, untouched landscapes that soothed the conscience of the 19th century settler with the structured environments designed to comfort the 21st century traveler. Starkly geometric motels, undulating cafeteria booths, and aching neon lights are all realities of the intervening years. Finding these public areas eerily depopulated, Fernandez shows us that post-human interiors are as silent, vast, and empty as the pre-human exteriors imagined in the 19th century.

These earlier landscapes were neither entirely fictionalized nor entirely honest presentations of reality. Fernandez also works the ground between these states, as he unassumingly documents fabricated colors, lines, surfaces, and subjects. Instead of a dreamy atmosphere lulling us into a state of sublime ignorance, patterning and saturation seduce us into a confrontation with truth and discomfort.

Early landscape photography confirmed that the land was created and ready for human consumption. Fernandez’s images are not so easily interpreted. In “Balcony with Chairs, Las Vegas, Nevada,” the empty chairs beckon weary travelers, but the realization of how long we’d have to stay in order to believe the onion spire in the distance is Red Square, not the Vegas strip, is exhausting, even frightening. “Plastic Swans, Atlantic Beach, New York” is a still image worthy of any film noir: white plastic swans afloat on the water, enigmatic black cats motionless in the background. In “Nymph Fountain, Miami, Florida,” a plaster water nymph drowns in bloody light—is anyone really transported from the “love motel” to the foothills of Mount Olympus? The compositions are inclusive and exclusive, inviting and repelling. We move between the sensations that these landscapes are not quite ripe and already a little too rotten. The potential of the modern, manufactured landscape remains unrealized.

The hypnotic, visual riddles are strong overall, though a slight disparity between works may be perceived, raising questions about this particular selection of images. The contrast leaves the prints standing more alone than together, which, intended or not, embodies the solitude and delayed expectation particular to the modern age.

Space Vacancy is on view at Goatsilk Gallery Wednesday through Sunday, April 3—30, from 2 to 6 p.m. The public is also invited to an opening reception with the artist on Saturday, April 5 from 6—9 p.m. Goatsilk Gallery is located at 1909 Wyoming St.—behind the orange door. Call 728-9251 for more information.

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