by Camille LeFevre   February 17, 2011

Camille LeFevre reflects on two photography shows with distinct views on place-making, both at the Mpls Photo Center through February 21 - "Jonathon Wells: Earth Revealed" and the group show, "Urban View - Rural Sight."
Jonathon Wells, "New York - City Block," 2004
Jonathon Wells, "New York - City Block," 2004
Copyright Jonathon Wells (courtesy of the artist's website)
Jonathon Wells, "Gasoline Station," 2005
Jonathon Wells, "Gasoline Station," 2005
Copyright Jonathon Wells (courtesy of the artist's website)

A NEW DOCUMENTARY TITLED INTO ETERNITY,  directed by the Danish conceptual artist Michael Madsen, ventures deep beneath the earth's surface to examine one of humanity's greatest feats of engineering, necessitated by one of our greatest follies -- our own hubris. Our sense of self-importance and our perceived needs so great, that we've created nuclear power plants to generate the energy necessary to fuel an unsustainable standard of living. To avoid polluting ourselves more than we already have, we bury the toxic waste generated by these power facilities deep in the ground, hoping to forget about it: Out of sight, out of mind.

One of these burial places, the Finnish storage site Onkalo, is the primary subject of Into Eternity. Blasted out of rock deep beneath Finland's pastoral forests, Onkalo is an impressive maze of tunnels, cavernous rooms, and piping designed to leave little sign of its existence, which nonetheless remains an ethical and philosophical problem. After studying geologist and photographer Jonathon Wells' work, currently on display in the first floor of the Minneapolis Photo Center, the question arises: What would Wells do with Onkalo?

Wells' show, Earth Revealed, is a collection of large-scale photographic collages: Many of them picture a strip of street with the layers of bedrock -- sometimes lying one on top of the other in ribbons of color and texture, other times seemingly heaved over one another in muscular collisions -- extending deep below the surfaces of both our streets and our consciousness. Sometimes the subway caverns and enormous pipes carved out of the bedrock (emblematic of the infrastructure beneath our feet) are evident in the cutaway perspective Wells achieves with his collages.

In other works he reveals the effects of environmental degradation. In Gasoline Station, for example, Wells' below-the-surface imagery charts levels of groundwater contamination. As a wake up call to heed the earth, literally, beneath our feet, Wells' work effectively achieves its goal through its panoramic size and emphasis on proportion. Obviously constructed with meticulous attention to detail -- each picture reportedly requires months of research, followed a long period of assembly -- the work is clearly more rationally executed scientific document than evocative artwork.

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As a wake up call to heed the earth, literally, beneath our feet, Wells' work effectively achieves its goal through its panoramic size and emphasis on proportion.

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Still, Earth Revealed is an intriguing companion to Urban View-Rural Sight: Documenting a Sense of Place, running concurrently on the photography center's second floor. In this call-for-entries exhibition, for which there are winners and honorable mentions, the "places" evoked by the photographs include the familiar suspects: pictures of sad, dilapidated buildings that speak of memory, desolation or the tattered remnants of past lives; images of people young (looking romantically rustic or as if they live off-grid) and old (in seed caps and dungarees) evoking nostalgia for a more rural way of life.

Other entrants focus on pattern in their photographs, whether through the rhythmic repetition of windows in an office building (Christos Koukelis, State of Things) or rural mailboxes painted ochre and rust (Kristine Thoreson, Box 28). Margalit Slovin's Magnolia Street is a Mondrian-like study in color and composition, with its tan rectangular forms bisected by the slim vertical lines of windows, lamppost, and trees. Through lighting, Harold Ross renders his subjects -- a clothesline, a bed of seaweed on a rocky Maine beach -- luminous and fantastical.

But only one image breaks free from the strict boundaries of the picture frame, Corey Gaffer's Kinnickinnic River, and in doing so forges a bond with Wells' work. In this murky, grey, topographical-like image, the churning river slashes through the jagged edges of the graffiti-ed culvert on either side, asserting its natural power even in the midst of concrete confinement. Just as the earth in Wells' composites is depicted as dense, complex, and almost impenetrable, despite our intrusions, so does Gaffer's river elude human control. And despite our efforts at significance or place-making -- whether through photography, the construction of cities, or the engineering of nuclear-waste repositories -- Wells' works remind us that, in the end, we're really just tiny denizens atop an enormous rock, orbiting through space.

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Related exhibition details:

Jonathon Wells: Earth Revealed and Urban View - Rural Sight: Documenting a Sense of Place are both on view at the Minneapolis Photo Center through February 21.

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About the author: Camille LeFevre is a St. Paul-based arts journalist.