The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.
Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.
As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.
This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.
It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.
*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.
In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.
Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.
What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.