History’s Shadow & Dust


David MaiselHistory’s Shadow GM4, C-Print Frame, 30 x 40 inches, edition of 7, 2010, Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery, © David Maisel.

On view now through 10 May, 2014 is the exhibition “History’s Shadow” by American artist David Maisel at Yancey Richardson Gallery New York. For over twenty-five years, Maiselʼs photographic work has been wide-ranging in scope, and yet deeply focused on what he describes as a “long-term investigation into the aesthetics of entropy, and the dual processes of memory and excavation.” Maiselʼs previous work includes several aerial landscape portfolios exposing the surreal, almost incandescent imprint of industrial mining and mineral extraction operations throughout the American West. In a later project, Library of Dust, Maiselʼs inquiries shifted dramatically in scale, to the unique imprint of mineral corrosion on individual copper canisters from a hospital archive.


David Maisel, History’s Shadow GM12, Archival Pigment Print, 40 x 30 inches, edition of 7, 2010, Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery, © David Maisel.

Historyʼs Shadow represents an elegant continuation of these well-established themes, utilizing x-rays as source material to explore the intersection of scientific research and visual art. The exhibitionʼs title comes from a project of the same name, inspired by the artistʼs residency at the Getty Research Institute, during which time he re-photographed x-rays of sculptural antiquities culled from the museumʼs conservation archives. According to Maisel, Historyʼs Shadow refers “both to the literal images that the x-rays create as they are re-photographed, and to the metaphorical content informed by the past from which these objects derive.”


David Maisel, History’s Shadow AB3, Archival Pigment Print, 40 x 30 inches, edition of 7, 2010, Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery, © David Maisel.


David Maisel, History’s Shadow GM10, Archival Pigment Print, 40 x 30 inches, edition of 7, 2010, Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery, © David Maisel.

In his essay, Trace Elements and Core Samples, Maisel describes the transformative nature of the material: “The ghostly images of these x-rays seemed to surpass the potency of the original objects of art. These spectral renderings were like transmissions from the distant past, conveying messages across time, and connecting the contemporary viewer to the art impulse at the core of these ancient works. Through the x-ray process, the artworks of origin become de-familiarized and de-contextualized, yet acutely alive and renewed, revivified. The shadow-worlds they occupy are informed by the black space surrounding the images, which in some instances becomes a vast nether world, and in others becomes the velvety ground of some kind of brain scan/portrait.”


David MaiselLibrary of Dust 1834, Archival Pigment Print, 2005-2006, Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery, © David Maisel.


David Maisel, Library of Dust 242, Archival Pigment Print, 2005-2006, Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery, © David Maisel.

In addition to Historyʼs Shadow, selections from Maiselʼs Library of Dust series are on display in the galleryʼs project space. In Library of Dust, the artist photographed individual copper canisters containing the cremated remains of patients from a state-run psychiatric hospital, documenting the beautiful yet disquieting effect of mineral corrosion on each unique object. As in Historyʼs Shadow, these transformative still-life objects float in a void against a pure black background, sublime meditations on the passage of time, memory, loss, and the metaphorical illustration of matter versus spirit.


David Maisel was born in New York City in 1961. He received his BA from Princeton University, and his MFA from California College of the Arts. His photographs, multi-media projects, and public installations have been exhibited internationally, and are included in many public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Victoria & Albert Museum; the National Gallery of Art; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Brooklyn Museum; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the Yale University Art Gallery; the Nevada Museum of Art; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others. Maiselʼs work has been the subject of five monographs: Black Maps (2013), Historyʼs Shadow (2011), Library of Dust (2008), Oblivion (2006), and The Lake Project (2004).

The Books

Maisel_Book_03Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, Photographs and essay by David Maisel, Introduction by Julian Cox, Essays by Natasha Egan, Geoff Manaugh, Alan Rapp, Kirsten Rian, Joseph Thompson, and Kazys Varnelis, Poem by Mark Strand, Book design by Bob Aufuldish, Aufuldish & Warinner, Edited by Alan Rapp, Hardcover, 248 pgs, Published by Steidl, 2013.

Black Maps is the first in-depth survey of the major aerial projects by David Maisel, whose images of radically altered terrain have transformed the practice of contemporary landscape photography. In more than one hundred photographs that span Maisel’s career, Black Maps presents a hallucinatory worldview encompassing both stark documentary and tragic metaphor, and exploring the relationship between nature and humanity today. Maisel’s images of environmentally impacted sites consider the aesthetics and politics of open pit mines, clear-cut forests, rampant urbanization and sprawl, and zones of water reclamation. These surreal and disquieting photographs take us towards the margins of the unknown and as the Los Angeles Times has stated, “argue for an expanded definition of beauty, one that bypasses glamour to encompass the damaged, the transmuted, the decomposed.”

Maisel_Book_01History’s Shadow, Photographs by David Maisel, Texts by Jonathan Lethem and David Maisel, Hardcover, 72 pgs, 43 color reproductions, Published by Nazraeli Press, 2011. 

David Maisel’s work has always been concerned with processes of memory, excavation, and transformation. These themes are given new form in his latest work, History’s Shadow. In this series, Maisel re-photographs x-rays from museum archives that depict artifacts from antiquity, scanning and digitally manipulating the selected source material. X-rays have historically been used by art conservators for structural examination of art and artifacts much as physicians examine bones and internal organs; they reveal losses, replacements, construction methods, and internal trauma invisible to the naked eye. By transcribing both the inner and outer surfaces of their subjects simultaneously, they form spectral images of indeterminate space, depth, and scale. The resulting photographs seem like transmissions from the distant past, both spanning and collapsing time. They express -through feeling and art, as well as science and reason- the shape-shifting nature of time itself, and the continuous presence of the past contained within us. The book contains an original short story by Jonathan Lethem that was inspired by Maisel’s images.

Maisel_Book_02Library of Dust, Photographs by David Maisel, Essays by David Maisel, Geoff Manaugh, Michael Roth, Terry Toedtemeier, Hardcover, 108 pgs, Published by Chronicle Books, 2008.

Photographer David Maisel has created a somber and beautiful series of images depicting canisters containing the cremated remains of the unclaimed dead from an Oregon psychiatric hospital. Dating back as far as the nineteenth century, these canisters have undergone chemical reactions, causing extravagant blooms of brilliant white, green, and blue corrosion, revealing unexpected beauty in the most unlikely of places. This stately volume is both a quietly astonishing body of fine art from a preeminent contemporary photographer, and an exceptionally poignant monument to the unknown deceased.