Magazine article Artforum International

Familiar Haunts

Magazine article Artforum International

Familiar Haunts

Article excerpt

Anthony Hernandez's "Pictures for Rome," 1998-99, bear no resemblance to the familiar images of that city. Venturing into the interiors of abandoned schoolhouses, hospitals, and never-finished office buildings, Hernandez's camera peruses these late-twentieth-century Roman ruins as if examining strange treasures from a lost twilight world. Whether framing eerily silent scenes such as an underground parking structure flooded with water, a curving hallway of ghostly offices, or the dust marks where pictures once hung on a wall, his meticulous compositions are closely observed and richly detailed--to the point where the prints, at 40 by 40 inches, appear disconcertingly physical, almost like sculptural slices of the environments they depict. But rather than convey a monumental solidity, these photographs conjure an unstable landscape of possible readings and associations, as if divining signs in the entrails of cast-off buildings.

Hernandez has taken pictures of similarly desolate and haunted places since 1986, often striking a harsher, more directly confrontational note than in the Rome series. Surveying the debris left behind at shooting ranges, construction sites, and the improvised encampments of the homeless, these earlier photographs focus on scattered details--discarded food containers, a battered doll--that make up a microlandscape of clues and visual intrigue. And just as the detective story classically revolves around anterior events, Hernandez's images evoke absent characters whose actions we can only reconstruct by mentally animating the played-out scenes he shows us. His pictures ask us, in other words, to intimately inhabit spaces that we might not normally wish to occupy. What makes this an inviting prospect is that the photographs are often seductively, if disturbingly, beautiful, suggesting the work of a wayward forensic photographer whose aesthetic sense occasionally overrides his investigatory agenda.

Hernandez's "Landscapes for the Homeless" series, 1988-91, shot around Los Angeles mostly in the early '90s, chronicles the domestic refuse--a cardboard mattress, cooking gear, clothing, and cigarette butts--of people whose "homes" lie under freeway overpasses and amid the overgrown weeds of vacant lots. Though utterly and elegantly deadpan, Hernandez's "Landscapes" also exude an unexpected aura of violence, as if the disarray they document were formed in the aftermath of an explosion. Rather than invite our sympathy--as do more straightforward portraits of the homeless--these pictures prompt us to experience some of the turmoil wreaked on an individual by his social invisibility.

In the Rome series, Hernandez's work leaps into more visually alluring territory as a number of these photographs push their mundane subject matter just past the threshold of recognizability. In some pictures, spatial uncertainty vies with photographic clarity so that you may be unsure, at first glance, whether you're examining the complex geometries of a flat surface or staring straight up an unfinished elevator shaft. A number of other images isolate specific objects so that they take on the abstract quality of enlarged details, enabling banal light fixtures to conjure the strange forms of Karl Blossfeldt's plant photographs. And because of the long exposure times required in these dimly lit places, certain colors, particularly around the green portion of the spectrum, are exaggerated beyond the "normal" way our eyes would see them, lending a disorienting lusciousness to the stripped-down spaces and materials that the artist explores. …

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