Dying Forest, Astral America 

Review by: Tom Morton
NextLevel Magazine, 2004

The big thing about being a non-American is that you’ve got to deal with America. Not only in the economic sense (that’s all but inescapable), but also in the sense of coping with it, of squaring-up to its rough, alien logic. Non-Americans have no choice in this. In a world in which America has established embassies in every film theatre and fizzy drinks cabinet, dealing with it is something all non-Americans are compelled to do.

Mike Perry’s large scale images of America are, it seems to me, in part the product of this imperative. They speak of a material space, sure, but they also open up a mental space in which America, for all that we’re familiar with it from its own pervasive self-mediation, may be thought about as truly foreign. Importantly, Perry, a European, accomplishes this not by shooting man-made things (motorways, malls, and other signifiers of kamikaze over-consumption), but by shooting America’s ‘natural’ landscape, in which the Founding Fathers glimpsed manifest destiny. Looking at his photographs, it seems Perry glimpses the same, but (unlike the Founding Fathers) he’s aware of its dark side, its accompanying shadows and rot.

America is a place where the horizon sits heavy on the land. We might imagine it as a great leveller, with all the egalitarianism that implies, but that doesn’t seem right somehow. A more compelling image is of the horizon as super-compressor, reducing everything beneath it to Hollywood-like two dimensions. Perry’s photographs, however, do not replicate this two-dimensionality. Instead, they are possessed of a soft, very un-Hollywood light, a conspicuous pictorial depth, and impose a very European, very Hegelian verticality onto the American landscape. Looking at them, it is as though an the Old World is reminding the New World that it was built on Old World Utopian dreams, and that it’s lost its way beneath a boundless, crushing sky.

Two years ago, Perry took a road trip from Phoenix to LA. Stopping at the Grand Canyon, he captured the images reproduced on these pages, which show not the Canyon itself but the trees that grow near its edge. Perry has said that ‘I couldn’t take a picture of the Grand Canyon’, and it’s not hard to see why he avoided the subject. What might anyone add to that great, striated scar? A mindless masterpiece, it mocks attempts to represent it, just as the day-tripping tourists – posing for photographs – mock it with their presence. The Canyon’s too grand to contemplate, but the nearby forest (with its humble, barely-registered beauty) is a different matter. It is, as Perry’s shots show, a tangled space where one might untangle one’s thoughts about America and all America means. The trees in Grand Canyon Forest 1, Grand Canyon Silver Birch 1 and Grand Canyon Silver Birch 2 (all works 2002) resemble passages from abstract paintings, all Barnett Newman zips and Jackson Pollock drips. Their arrangement’s almost gestural, as if a human had a hand in their higgledy-piggledy layout, and they’re the product of choice rather than pre-destination. They also feel oddly old fashioned (nowadays, even Nature’s occasionally anachronistic), so perhaps it’s appropriate that they cluster on the Canyon’s margins. In post-modern America, Modernism – like ordinary people, like nuanced political discourse – is a peripheral concern.

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