NEW BEDFORD — With only 10 days left, 2012 is unlikely to get a better exhibition subtitle than “Frank Gohlke: Miles and Miles of Things I’ve Never Seen.” The show runs through Jan. 27 at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth’s University Art Gallery.
That sly subtitle notwithstanding, it’s obvious that Gohlke has seen the things in the 11 large black-and-white diptychs that make up the show. Certainly his camera has. What Gohlke means is that these open fields in north Texas and broken-down cardboard boxes in his living room are things he’s never noticed or closely observed. They hide in plain sight — until someone with as keen an eye as Gohlke pays attention and leads us to do so, too.
Why diptychs? “Put two or more pictures in proximity with one another, and they’ll strike up a conversation,” Gohlke writes. “Of course a picture can no more talk than it can ride a bicycle; but there is something in the way the eye moves when it has to take account of two things rather than one that is reminiscent of the give and take of a lively exchange of thought expressed in words.”
Gohlke turned 70 last April. It indicates what a rich career he’s had that someone might justifiably identify him with any one of several aspects of that career. Gohlke was part of the celebrated group of New Topographics landscape photographers from the mid-’70s. His photographs from around that time of Midwestern grain elevators made those structures as much his artistic property as, say, leggy nudes are Helmut Newton’s. (Come to think of it, both subjects share a monumental verticality.) His decades-long exploration of the aftermath of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption added a quietly stupendous chapter to American landscape photography. Some readers may recall seeing the Gohlke retrospective “Accommodating Nature” at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 2008; it memorably demonstrated the dialectic between open space and horizontality in Gohlke’s body of work. Finally, there’s his distinguished career as a teacher, much of it spent at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
The UMass-Dartmouth show consists of two parts. “Ten Minutes in North Texas” comprises eight paired landscapes of Gohlke’s native region. The 10 minutes refers to the interval of time he let pass between taking each image in the diptych. He took them in 1995. “I was thinking about the horizon,” he writes, “its inescapable presence in the landscapes I grew up in and its diminished importance in my experience of interior New England, where I lived at the time.”
The landscapes show an august emptiness: so much space, interrupted by a river, fields, cracked soil, the occasional copse. Flatness and expanse prevail. There are no people. The uninflected style mirrors the (seemingly) undistinguished subject. Everything is sparse, spare, austere. The fact that all the photographs in the show are unframed adds to the effect.
You start noticing differences between the two parts of the diptych, as well as various details: a bale of hay here, a clump of grass there, the majesty of the cloud formations. The most famous clouds in photography are the many metaphor-burdened ones in Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents” series. There is nothing equivalent about Gohlke’s clouds. Meteorology, not metaphor, is what they’re about.
Where time differentiates the halves of the north Texas diptychs, it’s perspective with the work in “Two Not One.” Gohlke shifts his own position, simply seeking the most interesting pair of angles: a kind of camera Cubism.
Like that north Texas terrain, the boxes are subject matter that’s eloquently unadorned. That simplicity becomes almost voluptuous — certainly it becomes sculptural. They’re like maquettes for a revue Gohlke is staging, one in which he has angles do the work of actors. Crazy as it may sound, there are echoes of those grain elevators in the dogged thrust of the boxes. The absence of volume amid all the cardboard makes that mimicry a kind of parody. The boxes are sturdy yet provisional. You know that as soon as the camera’s put away they’re heading for basement or recycling bin.