Florian Maier-Aichen brings a contemporary sensibility to bear on a range of historical references, from German Romantic painting to 19th-century photographs of the American West. The German-born photographer shoots images with a large-format camera then alters them digitally by combining negatives, adding computer-drawn elements or otherwise changing the originals. The effects are painterly and the works large-scale (the biggest one in this show, all but one of them C-prints, was around 8 by 71⁄3 feet). In one untitled print (2009), a digitally created brushstroke cuts diagonally across a snowy mountainside. Alluding to the trails plowed across mountains to prevent avalanches, the photograph also suggests the black-and-white paintings of Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline. The sky above a dark mountainous outcropping in Der Watzmann (2009) references the Caspar David Friedrich painting of the same name (Maier-Aichen appropriated the image of the peak from the painting itself), while the sky suggests an airbrush version of the aurora borealis in red-orange and blue-green.
Der Watzmann may be the most direct reference to 19th-century German Romanticism and the sublime, but these are themes that Maier-Aichen frequently evokes, only to upend them. In a view of a rocky coastline in one untitled work (2009), the artist has added puddles of bright primary colors to the muted browns and blues of the landscape. Blue and red float on the surface of the water, and a brilliant cobalt flash bursts into the frame near the bottom left corner, suggesting a chemical spill or explosion and puncturing the myth of spiritual communion with an untouched wilderness.
Maier-Aichen often photographs from a helicopter, as in the ominously dark Salton Seas (I),2008, in which the neat geometry of the apparently domesticated distance gives way in the foreground to a harsh, rocky terrain, actual features of this uninhabitable area of the southern California desert. Other, brighter landscapes make use of the vivid colors of postcard views. Maier-Aichen also intentionally imitates the mistakes that occur when there is slippage during the sandwiching of several different negatives during conventional development, so that splotches of color show up in the wrong places. In a view of a river winding through the mountains (2009), tiny cars or groups of people are depicted in primary colors of a ghostly transparency, and sky and water are lightly washed in pale pinks and blues.
Photographic manipulation is nothing new; as early as the mid-19th century, Gustave Le Gray combined separate negatives of sky and water to make his seascapes. Le Gray comes to mind when looking at the only albumen print (2009) in the exhibition, which shows the sea and a cloudy sky with a group of ships on the horizon line. Unlike Le Gray, Maier-Aichen is not trying to create more convincing documents of an existing reality. Rather, his pictures combine the sense of awe fundamental to the sublime with a more critical contemporary attitude toward place and our mediated relationship to nature.
Photo above: Florian Maier-Aichen: Untitled, 2009, C-print, 363⁄8 by 465⁄8 inches; at 303.