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Artist, Photographer Has Own View Of American Southwest

Published: November 15, 2010

From Santa Monica’s Gallery Luisotti to London’s Tate Modern and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the photography of CSULB’s Mark Ruwedel was hard to miss this past summer.

The creative triple dip by the artist acclaimed for his photos of landscapes in the American Southwest was a career distinction that crowned his 2010 receipt of the Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award.

“I’m interested in the different points of collision between the promise and the reality of the land,” said Ruwedel, a member of the Art Department since 2002. “My interest is in the frontier mentality that is still very active in the American mythology and which is promoted by popular culture. The historian Frederick Turner was famous for declaring that the frontier was closed but I disagree. It has not closed; it has shifted. There is still the psychological frontier.”

Ruwedel was born in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1954. He received his BFA from Kutztown State College of Pennsylvania in 1978 and his MFA from Montreal’s Universite Concordia in 1983, where he taught photography full time from 1984-2000 and was for three years chair of its department of photography. His photographs have been exhibited throughout North America and Europe including in “Railroad Vision” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2002, “Crossing the Frontier” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1996 and “Poetic Evidence” at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Among the many museums which have acquired Ruwedel’s work are the Getty Museum, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal; the Library of Congress in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Fonds, Nationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris; the National Gallery of Canada and the Yale University Art Gallery.

Ruwedel’s 21 pictures on display in July at the Gallery Luisotti continued his commitment to the venue where his work has appeared in 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2008. The Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Knight praised Ruwedel’s Luisotti exhibit for his “nuanced knowledge of (the) endlessly circling contradictions” of the American West and said his portraits of abandoned desert homes were “given a certain urgency — not to mention poignancy — by the collapse of the high-flying residential real estate market that likely drove the construction of many of the pictured buildings.”

His frontal, middle-distance views of abandoned desert homes explore isolation in a desert landscape. “They get their eerie quality from a particular desert light,” he explained. “When the sun goes behind the mountains, it leaves a glow. There is no ambient light from street lamps or cars. Hopefully, these photos are both beautiful and disturbing.”

Several photos at the Luisotti exhibit focused on bits of clothing lying on the ground. “They reminded me of NASA photos of objects on the surface of the moon,” he said. “Women’s underwear and high-heeled shoes scattered in the desert suggest tragedy. Why are these articles there? The photos circle around a sense of failure. Much of my work deals with failure but on different scales. There are large failures like the railroad’s relation to westward expansion and small failures like abandoned articles of clothing.”

The Tate Modern exhibit in May moved this fall to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “My contribution was a set of pictures about surveillance,” he explained. “You don’t see the surveillance or the surveyed. But you see clues to a massive migration of people across a harsh terrain. That’s true whether it’s a picture of a 10,000-year-old paleo-Indian footpath or a Guatemalan passport I found lying on the desert. These little things suggest epic stories. I’m talking about global issues while I’m concentrating on a deflated inner tube which has become a kind of icon along the All-American Canal on the international border where they are used as flotation devices.”

British audiences at the Tate Modern saw an exhibit rich in context. In the Tate exhibit, Ruwedel’s shared the same gallery with aerial photographs of Kuwait after the first Gulf War and shots of “Belfast castles,” fortified bunkers used by the British army during the Irish occupation. “Each photo provided context for the other pictures,” he said. “The Kuwaiti photos made my photos more accessible.” Ruwedel was present at the Tate Modern for the exhibit’s opening and gave a videotaped interview about his work. “In some ways, it doesn’t matter what an artist thinks the work means,” he said. “Meaning is not the same as intention. Maybe I don’t think my work has anything to do with the real estate crisis but nonetheless the work carries that association.”

Most of the works in both exhibits were created on day or weekend trips. “I used to go on marathon safaris where I would photograph in far-flung locations,” he recalled “Those were day trips to the Owens Valley, the unincorporated Wonder Valley east of 29 Palms and a few bits around the Salton Sea, and I still go again and again and again. I always seem to stumble on these homes and inner tubes while working on something else. It’s not pre-conceptualized.”

Ruwedel admits to a strong element of voyeurism in his work. “I think one reason people choose to live in the desert is the sense they live beyond the law. That makes me very cautious,” he said. “If I don’t feel comfortable about a place, I’ll look at it through field glasses first. I think I could have made a good criminal or a good detective. The first thing people do to an abandoned home is strip it. The articles of clothing I find and photograph are always outside the home, not inside. There are scavengers out there. Every time I see an abandoned car, it will be gone in six months. I often get the feeling someone is squatting in these abandoned homes. It keeps me interested. What’s going on there now?”

He works with a 4-by-5 view camera because the big negative delivers plenty of detail. “Even though I make modest-sized prints, they are rich in surface imagery,” he said. “Also, the camera has perspective control. That way, if I want to photograph something on the ground, I can make it look completely flat. I like the discipline of slowing down and looking that goes with using this camera. I don’t snap 30 or 40 shots the way I would with a small camera.”

Ruwedel believes he has an unromantic notion of what it means to be an artist. “It’s an intellectual and physical activity. Making art is your life. It doesn’t let you get away from your life. It is the center of your life,” he said. “I don’t literally work every day but I almost do. I feel that is the only way to do it. I don’t mean that someone isn’t an artist if they don’t work on the weekends. But it is not a hobby and it is not a diversion. To say you’re an artist means something about how you structure your life and how you see your role in society.”