Gallery Luisotti is delighted to announce Dead West, CJ Heyliger’s debut solo exhibition at the gallery. In Dead West, Heyliger curates photographic works from his series Hell Mirage in a way that makes explicit the stakes of his artistic concerns with and practice of photography. Dead West simultaneously reads as orientation, an imperative statement with a typographical error (Head West), and an appraisal of a vast amount of territory. This ambiguity is a central motif in Heyliger’s pictures that forces the viewer to contend with his or her preconceived notions about how the landscape and nature, more broadly, are understood through images.
The namesake of the exhibition is a modestly sized photograph of 12 by 9½ inches. Dead West shows spindly tumbleweed that has been coated with a matte black rubber sealant and placed upon a white backdrop, against which it casts subtle shadows; several branches’ tips reach outside the frame. The tumbleweed, despite being a brilliantly adapted plant, has become overburdened by its use in popular depictions of desolate environments or for comedic effect in urban settings. Heyliger’s “painting” of the plant stops its easy signification. A tension arises. Is it an inanimate object or a subject attempting to escape its own representation in the picture frame? The tumbleweed is effectively dead once it separates from its roots. The one crucial exception is its living seeds, which are released as the drying branches wander the desert floor. Heyliger’s coating of the branches stops the tumbleweed’s further deteriorating and ennobles its structure. That Heyliger took this photograph in situ opens up the possibility that another gust of wind could arise, taking the newly invincible plant with it. Locomotion resumes. The west is not so dead after all.
Heyliger describes the arid West as not being a vast terrain, but rather as his studio. By situating himself in that way in relation to the land, he exerts a level of control in his picture making that he then uses against notions of mastery. He tackles the problems of chance and accident head on; they infiltrate the remaining works in the exhibition: Hell Mirage #1, North, East, South, West, Targets #1-5, Angeles Crest #3, and Broken Glass. These works unpack the questions raised by the single Dead West photograph by being the result of repeated exposures on one negative or several negatives strung together. Heyliger subtitles some of his works (from Nothing Stands Still) to denote works that are made through repeated visits to the same site. The vistas are remarkably aligned, but show a landscape that exists not only in space, but time as well. The typically invisible shifts in the landscape are foregrounded by the stippling effect. Angeles Crest #3 depicts an almost Platonic mountain range that vibrates due to the repeated layering of light on film. The construction of the image is laid bare, almost as transparent as the faintest mountain range shown.
Relatedly, Hell Mirage #1 is made in a single setting, but the camera is left open as Heyliger pulls on the film, creating an out of focus, almost aerial effect. North, East, South, West is a photograph of a preternaturally straight yucca that has been captured from the four cardinal directions, adding volume and dimension to this lonesome entity. Targets come from the impossible premise of holding the camera up to the sun and making five exposures that line up in the center. This agenda is rendered even more difficult by this particular camera’s disabling of the viewfinder when loaded with film. Repeated five times, each a ‘failure,’ the works acknowledge an inherent lack of control in every photograph in which deliberateness does not enter at some other point. In many ways, Heyliger has created a system where typical markers of imperfection like the blur and underexposure come together to form works that he can take full ownership of. Dead West is a terrain of Heyliger’s making; its landmarks and purposeful accidents are cause for recalibration.