April 26, 2010


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One of the newest exhibits at the Johnson is a trifecta of creative work from artist Michael Ashkin, a display that is based in photography, cinematography and topographical instillations.

Ashkin was born in 1955 in Morristown, New Jersey, a setting that undoubtedly inspired the framework for his artistic endeavors. But initially he didn’t go to school specifically for art: He received a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in Oriental Studies; then he received an M.A. in Middle East Languages and Cultures from Columbia University; and finally worked as a computer programmer for investment banks before deciding to completely focus on his artwork. In 1993 he left the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Painting and Drawing.

His work is largely based in the wildness of industrialized society. By demonstrating how industrialism has encroached upon the typical American backyard and a Middle Eastern desert lain to waste by ongoing war, his work emphasizes the direct relationship between landscape and industrialism.

His work further displays the duality of society: the romantic and the grotesque. Ashkin juxtaposes the traditional utopian ideology about industrialism with reality. He infuses an under-appreciated and over-looked beauty into the desolate industrialism of the city.

The first part of the exhibit, (Long Branch), is a series of photographic prints based with the theme of industrialism in everyday society. Ashkin captures rows upon rows of telephone lines, abandoned warehouses, metal containers, road construction, an endless sea of concrete, metal and electricity.

What is remarkable about the (Long Branch) prints is the way that Ashkin displays them. Some prints are split in half to give the scene an uncertain discontinuity and, by extension, bring a sense of wonder and thoughtfulness to the mind of the beholder. In many instances, a single image is broken down into two to reveal the two opposing emotions that were hidden by the continuity of the scene. As our eye takes in each print separately rather than as a whole, we notice different features.

In other prints, Ashkin uses the same image twice but changes the confines of each image; he adds a little more to either the right or the left and again transforms the scene into something new that the previous image didn’t expose.

The second facet of the exhibit is a series of topographical instillations. Using a minimalistic approach, one is composed largely of wood, dirt, glue and salt. The creation emphasizes the magnificent nature of the land and its disruption by an oil refinery.

Another instillation examines the war-ravaged desert. It is a depiction of the sand and desert with a toy-like gun amongst the desolate landscape.

Another huge topographical instillation, Untitled (where each new sunrise promises only the continuation of yesterday)…  is made almost entirely of recycled cardboard and shows an aerial view of the topography of the desert land. The distinction between the different fields and areas of land are portrayed through the lines between the overlapping cardboard. The simplicity of the untouched desert is demonstrated by the simplicity of the rendering, but the desert’s disruption is blaringly obvious through the depiction of scattered buildings and factories.

The theme of isolation also plays a big role in this part of the exhibit, because the way that the viewer sees the instillation is from a far-away, overhead look of the desert and the far-away industrialization. The viewer is divorced from the art, as there exists a divorce also between the landscape and the nucleus of metropolitan life.

The third part of the exhibition is a film, a single channel video instillation that displays a single, barren, white-walled room with a voice-over on a repetitive 16-minute loop. The narrator’s monotonous voice matches the emptiness of the room. But the video and the unemotional voice serve as undisruptive elements of the desolation of the room.

Photographer, cinematographer and sculptor Michael Ashkin presents something extraordinary in his newest exhibit. Through his minimalistic method, Ashkin doesn’t overtly impose his opinion on the viewer but softly compels the viewer to change his perspective on the intrusive spirit of industry upon the land.

Ashkin, who we can claim as our own, has been the Director of Graduate Studies in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning since 2006. He is recognized both nationally and internationally for his art, and in 2009 he became a Guggenheim Fellow. His exhibit will be on display at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art until July 11.

Original Author: Heather McAdams