With their brushstrokes, pours, erasures, and stains, David Maisel’s paintings reference landscapes — sites of memory, zones of environmental disaster —but also the edge of the ocean, the sky at dusk, places of safe harbor and renewal. As with all of his work, Maisel looks to the destruction of both natural and human-made worlds, asking questions about survival and loss, and about what we can attempt to control versus what falls irretrievably beyond that domain.
In his latest photographic series, Desolation Desert, David Maisel brings his focus to the massive mining operations in the vast territory of Chile’s Atacama Desert. The highest and driest desert on the planet, this sensitive eco-region of the Atacama is being transformed at an unparalleled pace and scale by extractive industries. Maisel’s aerial images of these sites are abstract, graphic, and painterly—offering viewers detailed, open-ended information that operates on a metaphorical level as much as a documentary one.
Proving Ground is an investigation through photographs and time-based media of Dugway Proving Ground, a classified site covering nearly 800,000 acres in a remote region of Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert devoted to the development and testing of chemical and biological weapons and defense systems. After a decade of inquiry, Maisel was granted rare access to photograph the terrain, testing facilities, and other aspects of this deliberately obscured region of the American atlas.
In Shadow Painting, the x-ray considers the canvas, the support structure of the painting, and the wood of the altarpiece – the material itself from which the artwork is made– as well as the ghostly, spectral images that seem to be unearthed from some distant, mysterious realm.
“As engaged as he is in the surrounding issues, Maisel is not attempting to make literal records of environmental destruction. Rather, he seeks a distance that scrambles a conventional reading of the landscape. In this altered state, the laws of gravity are undone, solid ground gives way, and the photograph is experienced as a transcendent vision or tone poem, as much as a map of ecological disaster.” —Aperture, volume 172, Fall 2003
Maisel’s work in The Fall is his response to the contemporary Spanish landscape located between the cities of Madrid and Toledo. The images show zones of agriculture, mining, and abandoned urban development that appear otherworldly and alien.
"To alchemize these beautiful but disturbing images, Maisel re-photographed and manipulated conservation X-rays of three–dimensional objects from two California museums. In doing so he’s conjured revenants - of masks, sculptures, bowls - that, he says, represent a confluence of art, time, and technology. These images 'make the invisible visible' and express the 'shape-shifting nature of time itself'."
—The New York Times, January 13, 2012
“Unexpectedly alluring, these square segments of horizonless land are saturated with brilliantly unnatural colors—acidic greens, fluorescent reds, and bright aquas—that signal the toxicity of these transformed landscapes. Suggesting a disorienting world in perpetual flux, the painterly images undermine any sense of stable ground, depicting an unsettling portrait of human intervention in the landscape.” —Artforum, October, 2013
“What looks like violent decay is also generative change; each canister is a formal, ethical, and mineralogical Rorshach….Maisel’s work over the past two decades has argued for an expanded definition of beauty, one that bypasses glamour to encompass the transmuted, the decomposed. Beauty that is generated at the cost of something precious or the result of flawed choices.” —Los Angeles Times feature, January 4, 2009
“Maisel’s fine new work is on more familiar territory- the city of Los Angeles- but it still looks like another, much more forbidding planet…This is not the first time you've seen an overhead shot of L.A.'s looping freeway interchanges, but Maisel abstracts them and everything else here until the city appears depopulated, absolutely post–apocalyptic.” —The New Yorker, December 11, 2006
“Extended without limit, the very things that hypnotize us with the aesthetic dimension of humankind’s presence – our architecture, our machines, our domestication of wilderness – contain the seeds of our destruction, modernity’s poisoned wish. Perhaps when all the warnings have become laments, the last photographer will record the singularly beautiful image of a worn-out world, terminal but no longer just a mirage.” —Photograph, May/June 2005
Anthropologists say that if you want to learn about a civilization, look at what it leaves behind…But unlike anthropologists who inspect physical evidence on the ground, Maisel makes photographs of the earth from airplanes, and the geochemical haloes he commits to film – residue of the industrial processes that fuel the human market economy – yield a strange, beguiling kind of forensic evidence. That evidence forms a kind of planetary autopsy, a portrait of mankind’s ravenous appetites and their consequences. —Square Cylinder, October 8, 2013
Maisel’s series depicts clear-cuts and abandoned log flows in northern Maine. The trees have been uprooted from the earth by a machine called a “whole-tree harvester.” The ravaged, deforested images recall Matthew Brady photographs of corpse-strewn Civil War battlefields. The Forest becomes a poetic elegy for landscapes that have incontrovertibly vanished.
The vital thread that runs through Black Maps is Maisel’s tireless search for new and ever shifting ways of conveying, photographically, the scope of mankind’s uneasy and conflicted relationship with nature…Inspired by the writings and earthworks of Robert Smithson, Maisel’s bold ambition has been no less than to change our relationship to the landscape and our understanding of its "history" and in so doing provide a singularly aesthetic appreciation of the apocalyptic sublime. —Julian Cox, An Exquisite Problem, 2013
The volcano Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington in 1980, unleashing cataclysmic forces more than 400 times the strength of the atomic blast that leveled Hiroshima. Viewed from the air, these transformations appear totemic in scale: forests thrown down like matchsticks; riverbeds rerouted through vast debris fields of pyroclastic flow; and countless layers of pearlescent ash blanketing the flanks of the volcano.