The Desert or Something Like It: Grey Crawford’s El Mirage

“And now we sleep in the brief interval between the lightning and the thunder.”

William Irwin Thompson, Passages About Earth

“You know, one pebble moving one foot in two million years is enough action to keep me really excited.”

Robert Smithson

“I am convinced now that the desert has no heart, that it presents a riddle which has no answer, and that the riddle itself is an illusion created by some limitation or exaggeration of the displaced human consciousness.”

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

"People don’t go to a place like that to look for other people. That’s the opposite of the whole concept that’s behind the thing.”

David Foster Wallace, “The Broom of the System”

“Distinctions tend to vanish when the temperature reaches 105.”

Don Delillo, End Zone

A man stands in the dry lake bed, his arms outstretched. The sky is so bright it sings. Mountains rise in the distance, stippled with vegetation like the brushwork on a Chinese scroll. They are far away, so it’s difficult to tell just how tall they are. There is no scale. That’s why the man is standing there, caught between two immensities. He is attempting to measure them with his body. But he can’t measure them, not like Leonardo’s Renaissance figure, inscribed in multiple geometries. He’s simply there, and the terrain solicits him with questions from a time before any perceiving being: What are you? Can you know the world as if it were not made for you?

Grey Crawford came up from Claremont, California through the Cajon Pass and the high desert, past Victorville, into the dry lake bed of El Mirage. He got out of his car, entered the blank space, a natural tabula rasa devoid of growing things, and said, “What do I do with this?” And after it was all over, after he had enacted his ceremonies with glass, metal and plastic and recorded them with film, he stood with his arms outstretched to indicate that he knew at last that even infinity could be bracketed. But of course, it wasn’t Crawford that set boundaries and arranged the elements, it was his camera.

If you live in Los Angeles, or close to it, you naturally look to the ocean. You reside on the terminal coast, and the ocean’s light and sound beyond the traffic din of the centrifugal metropolis are those of a shifting and turbulent vastness. But travel east from beach and water and the vastness changes its character. Immensity replaces endlessness, stasis replaces turbulence. Sight adjusts. The dry lakes of the Mojave desert offer no mental purchase, the same in all directions, a broken mosaic of the earth’s desiccated skin. Unlike standing at the water’s edge, nothing here challenges you at the margins of your presence, and so nothing confirms you. No tides rushing in and retreating, no tide pools, no sense of origins. On the ground, looking up, you are caught between mirrors, profoundly disoriented. It is the driest place in North America. Your existence here is an implacable enigma. This is the desert beyond the desert, El Mirage.

To describe the place where the works of art happened, it would be best to begin like Melville in Moby Dick, with a lineage of references, an avalanche of impressions to affirm the heroic, even mythic, dimension of the confrontation. A gendered impulse by current lights, but why else explore there if you are not going to go to extremes and do something spectacular, something aboriginal or extraterrestrial, even if only a few – the happy few! – ever see it in person? Word will travel, like the legend of the white whale that sinks ships. James Turrell has spent a large part of his life sculpting a meteorite crater in Arizona. Walter Di Maria called down the lightning in New Mexico. In the Great Salt Lake, Robert Smithson’s encrusted Spiral Jetty represents something like a message from the ancient world to the distant future in a language of pure abstraction. El Mirage offers an invitation to extreme thoughts and exerts its demand for a matching spectacle, an appropriating gesture. Dennis Oppenheim chartered two planes to fly over it and leave a trail of liquid nitrogen smoke, an act of dispersion that for a short time stitched together earth and sky.

Grey Crawford had a different idea, because his métier was different, apparently more humble – photography, that static recorder of two dimensions in the real world. He went into the desert to the dry lake to make a series of photographs in which no people appear (except for the final self-portrait) but in which geometric objects are used to inhabit the desert, even as his camera frames limits on its empty amplitude. The photographer played a game of perspective with the optical properties of his medium, and other games as well. In a different desert series from about the same time, Crawford depicted a ground-level game of horseshoes at El Mirage, a kind of Dadaist gesture, like a tea party with no tea. Yet these pictures are not visual, not limited by the faculty of sight. They are synaesthetic: the clang of horseshoes on the post reverberates through the space of the photographs. The heat of the sun shimmers through the surface of the images. The camera was there to capture it all.

What was really going on there? What was at stake in the dry lake? The male side of so-called Land Art of the 1970s suffered from a form of hubris originating in two parallel preoccupations: archaeology and conceptualism. From archeology – and its cousin anthropology – came the idea of marking the landscape, colonizing it in exactly the way early civilizations (and later ones) did, by inscribing a presence, via remnants, traces, instant ruins. Even Agnes Denes, who planted a wheat field in the much greener pastures of lower Manhattan, left something behind. Never mind the “works” could not be bought or sold. The point was, at that moment of environmental consciousness, to say something about the nature of man, and to submit the work to the fortunes of time. Crawford, the photographer, left nothing behind.

The second source, conceptual art, privileged the ephemeral: acting in a place or landscape, mapping a space, performing a ritual, often to no evident purpose except perhaps to discover through repetition and extension the ways in which the world might be known. Many “works” were never enacted at all and exist embryonically as lists of instructions in artists’ notebooks. (“Buy a lid. Smoke it ‘up.’ See what happens.” – Lee Lozano, Grass Piece). Others were so open ended that they could conclude only with the disappearance of the artist. Bas Jan Ader’s ocean vanishing act during his until then ongoing In Search of the Miraculous set a kind of standard for the dematerialization of art. Since his body was never found, it isn’t certain that the “work” is actually finished. It’s just that that the visual record he was creating in photographs simply stopped.

The visual record: In both cases – the great earth gestures and the transient performances – photographs were the handmaidens who could not be dismissed when the master was satisfied. They were the only evidence of the work absent direct witness, the only shortcut to journeys few “viewers” would ever make. Not that the photographs were artless. The deeper we look into the record of performance art and land installation, the clearer it becomes that photographs were arranged as propaganda and argument, or rather as metaphysical and aesthetic PR. The pretense was that the photographs weren’t doing anything. Like Ishmael, they alone were left alive to tell the tale. It’s true that the plans usually came first, the drawings, scribbled notes and lists of instructions. But the perspectives and framing of the photographs – now archived in museums like holy relics – have come to determine the collective cultural memory of these experiences and objects. Vanishing point perspective and lens-based foreshortening, to name only a few optical properties, are what Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Morris and others exploited with an eye toward the historical record. By now, those features have become the works. The performances opened spaces and the camera proceeded to shape them and set them in stone.

Among artists of the time, Grey Crawford understood the constitutive role of photography more thoroughly than anyone else. Which is to say that Crawford was first and foremost a photographer, but of a different kind.

Several series concern us. El Mirage and Glass House, shot in black and white with a medium format camera, document distinct performances in the desert near El Mirage, California, between 1975 and 1977. The photographs were published in a limited edition book that has taken its place among the iconic rarities of the period, including Nancy Rexroth’s Iowa and Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence. For the current edition, the artist has added both color photographs from the sessions and what might be considered outtakes that amplify the series. Crawford has remarked that traditional photographers “didn’t get what I was doing,” and in the context of the sea change photography was undergoing in the 1970s, it’s easy to see why not. Crawford’s education in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and the Visual Studies Workshop steeped him in darkroom practices but also taught him to question the nature of a visual subject. The traditional expressive goal of an art photograph, in which a felt perception of the photographer is transmitted through an image to inspire a similar intuition in a viewer, represents what we might call the temptation of transcendental subjectivity, an unwarranted confidence in photographs’ ability to mediate highly specific experiences in a one-way communication. Needless to say, most photographs don’t have this goal because they have other jobs to do, and the ones that do often depend on a consensus about the meaning of certain elements, gestures and even output formats that is anything but universal. A generation of artists and photographers questioned the expressive model by –among other strategies – applying a deadpan documentary style to fabricated subjects and staged events. Crawford’s early skepticism took the form of a project titled The Bridge, in which he wrapped himself in a black plastic bag and staged himself in various settings, including a Bergmanesque chess game. At the heart of these dubious documents was a blob, an ungainly, plastic enigma.

As a prelude to El Mirage, two things about this project stand out. The first is Crawford’s persistent, underlying interest in photography itself, in how things and people appear in it. How mass, weight and transparency register on film and how images can be sequenced into narratives. This goes hand in hand with his sense of humor about the medium, an attitude that rescues his photographic experiments from the overburdened seriousness of minimalism and conceptual art. The second is a discovery about where the significance of a photograph lies, and what it does. For Crawford, the photograph’s role was not to present visual equivalents for inner states or analogize ineffable experiences but to sponsor them. He titled his student project after the German expressionist art movement Die Brucke (“the Bridge”), but the bridge he was building took viewers away from his subjective experience and into their own.

For El Mirage, Crawford initially placed squares of reflective plastic on the cracked lakebed in various configurations – sometimes as a grid and sometimes simply scattered. He combined these with rigid rectangular etching plates, which appear in the photos as black geometric figures. The initial gesture he made on first arriving at El Mirage was to thrust one of these etching plates into the ground, tearing open the earth’s skin and transforming this piece of unused media into a totem or monolith. Like everything that would follow in the series, the move was goofy and awful, a play between the gratuitous and the primordial.

At first glance, the series immediately brings to mind several references. The first is Carl Andre’s floor installations of metal plates. Begun in the mid 1960s, they announced a new and rather brutal sculptural language, primitive and futuristic. Richard Serra’s monumental Cor-ten steel whorls and balanced plates appear as the apotheosis of this demanding, ceremonial, space-invading aesthetic. In Crawford’s photographic desert, however, nothing is, and nothing is as it seems. The plastic squares become dynamic, reflecting the sun and actually taking flight when the artist or the wind scatters them. They curl and rumple as Andre’s plates never could. The reflectiveness of the foil – one aspect of the mirage-making of the series – also recalls the very different project of Robert Smithson: Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan (1969). Smithson fabricated a bogus archaeology, parodying the nineteenth century investigations of Mayan sites by John Lloyd Stephens. In nine locations marking his travel through the Yucatan, Smithson arranged a dozen small square mirrors. Whatever else the project intended, it highlighted the radical disjunction between artifact and environment and called into question the impact of culture as an organizing or rational enterprise in the natural scheme of things. This entropic idea, so close to the forces that Crawford conjures in his photographs, refers as well to the very idea of journeying – toward a goal of ultimate significance or understanding that remains forever elusive.

For a photographer with a mature sense of the ridiculous, minimalism must have represented low-hanging fruit. To repeat a point, throughout the 1960s and 70s, photography was repeatedly deployed to undercut the ambitions of fine art, and Crawford was hardly averse to playing the court jester. But he had a deeper interest. The etching plates did things to the ground. They had weight and left impressions, but in a photograph, they could be made to do much more. In the first place, they could be made to appear much larger than they were, because there was no scale of comparison within the frame. Throughout El Mirage, Crawford constantly plays with scale and an expectation of monumentality. If the desert reduces human significance, photography can restore and even augment it. A foot square becomes ten feet. In the same vein, the plates were small enough to send flying. Crawford threw them into the air where they could evoke a completely different set of forces, like his game of horseshoes, defying gravity and harnessing motion to define an instant of time against the scarcely changing backdrop of the desert stage. For all the mad energy of this performance, this dance, which enacts the disintegration of order and solidity, the El Mirage photographs are nothing more than repeated instances of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” But, again, with a difference. Their significance lies not in what they reveal about a specific event or situation, but in how they reflect on everything around or beyond it: photography, sculpture, space, place and perception.

Clearly Crawford was thinking of El Mirage in the broadest terms as an archaic performance and the photographs themselves as a recorded artifact. Especially with the images in which he stages an etching plate as a monolithic black rectangle and captures both its stark outline and shadow, he is taking the measure of the desert, or, as he remarked, limiting it, establishing boundaries for the experience of it, even as the presence of the object emphasizes its vastness. It is hard to imagine Crawford wasn’t thinking of sequences from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and almost certainly he had Michael Brewster’s sound sculptures in mind. The truth here is double-sided. Crawford’s sculptural geometric figures, so reminiscent of a variety of land art interventions in the 1970s, establish consciousness within the openness of an antecedent world. These figures are primary signs that divide the void. In this sense, then, the photograph becomes not just a secondary means of limiting, by framing, the event, but a reiteration of it – an expansion of it, really, into our space and temporal frame. We can sense Crawford’s ecstasy at the potential expunging of the self as boundaries usually confirmed by the documentary character of the photograph are undermined. We come upon something ambiguous in the photographs; we are catapulted into a moment without time and a space without place.

To turn from the complications of these pictures to the restricted language of the photographs Crawford originally titled Glass House is like leaving a crowded room to have a one-on-one discussion, albeit one of escalating intensity. This group of pictures, now folded into the current and definitive version of El Mirage, brings a new set of themes onto the dry stage. The metal foil and etching plates have been replaced by three glass panels. Tilted up against each other, similar to the way Richard Serra tilted his steel panels, they become a dwelling, of sorts, a rather caustic reference to Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House. But that dwelling, like all rigorously ordered constructions in Crawford’s desert, proves not just provisional but utterly illusory.

Photography is essential to the staging. Photographs traffic in appearances, through the mechanism of light bent by a convex lens. Unlike the eye, they cannot make distinctions about those appearances, about reflection and transparency, shadow and substance. The camera gathers all the information, no matter how confusing, and Crawford revels in the visual confusion. The artist had no compunctions about going back into the darkroom and altering images made at El Mirage to confuse lines and shadows even more, just as he did in another project from the 1970s, Umbra. In several photographs he appears to have double exposed images of glass and landscape, reducing the tangible reality to nothing more than a ghost image, a deliberate hallucination, a (metaphor coming up here) mirage.

Today’s digital manipulators and image appropriators for the most part have little inkling of this time when artists’ sense of the photograph as data was almost as fluid and their awareness of photography’s conventions was as high, if not higher than now. In Crawford’s glass plate images, the play between transparency and opacity, and between defined form and invisible substance becomes dizzying. In some images the glass panels disappear completely, in others only lines or shadows seem to mark their presence. In several images, a panel lies broken on the cracked desert floor, forming a second mosaic against the pattern of lake bed cracks. The sequence concludes with two of the panels lying flat on the ground, transparent to the earth except for a shard from a broken corner of glass.

The importance of still imagery in recording this performance is related to its use in many other performance pieces of the 1970s. The “still” breaks up the continuity of action into a set of different views, requiring that viewers engage each one separately, from whatever point of view the image stipulates. The overall effect is to encourage comparisons or shifting between the moments and perspectives. Moreover, the temporal distance between frames can be expanded or contracted at will, like an accordion. There is no hard and fast temporal scheme enacted in this sequence; it depends to a large degree on the “speed” of the viewer, not the depicted events. In truth, temporality is less important to the project than vision. It seems clear by the play of transparencies and shadows that we are meant to stop and consider each of the stages of the performance as – potentially at least – an epiphanic instant. Given the radical leaps in viewpoint and emotion between some of the images, it might be better to think of the whole thing as a story, in which a human construction is buffeted by forces beyond its control, is destroyed, then recomposed, only to fall again. If the story outlined in this way feels like a myth, it is not accidental. Crawford himself puts it slightly differently: “I developed a visual language with various elements, like sentences and even rhymes. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I was seeking a rhythm.” The result is a mini epic, with photography as the hero-with-a thousand-faces.

The desert games we have been describing presuppose black and white photography, with its dubious metaphysic of opposites and its (now nostalgia-laden) limitations. Black and white forms the core of El Mirage. But opening the new version and interspersed in several sequences are color photographs, shot with 4 x 5 color negative film. Their appearance is shocking. They jolt viewers out of their historical complacency and demand a more contemporary response because they revise an entire tradition of American landscape photography that was taking shape even as Crawford was shooting. Rather than calling it after its better known designation, the New Topographics, we might better call it the New Objectivity. The neutrality of Stephen Shore, William Christenberry, and the Dusseldorf Art Academy faculty and graduates, to name only a few, quickly became a global standard and to some degree still is.

The kindest thing to say is that Crawford wasn’t having much of that. His objectivity was precisely the necessary fiction of these photographs. He refers to them as “dated, but in a good way,” redolent of their historical moment. Again, the point was not to show something, a view, a scene, to but to make an experience possible. The photograph that opens the new El Mirage shows a square of lake bed marked out with rectangular pigmented lines, the kind of snap lines that some painters were using at the time. The image announces that this is the arena where all performative acts will take place. Its colors signify that it is a “real,” space, a documented reality, while the black and white photographs that follow become the formal, metaphoric and undated performance. Crawford reserves a special kind of violence for these photographs; when color intrudes again it comes as a burst of red – powdered pigment scattered on the desert floor.

The gesture recalls a performance of Michael Heizer’s in another dry lake bed of the Mojave that involved scattering pigments and their eventual dispersion by the wind. Crawford, however, was thinking pictorially, more interested in the relationship between photography and painting, and he used the desert as a photographic canvas, so to speak.

But why? Why color, and how does it relate to the high-contrast desert discoveries already outlined above? The appearance of red is the likely answer, and perhaps the key to the ambition of the El Mirage project, a revelation of the deeper search provoked by reality’s blank slate and the eons of geologic time. Throughout the history of Western art, there is a quest for ultimate colors, the binding of specific hues to extrasensory realities. The symbolic values may shift, but color has never – until recently – been merely visual or value-free. What is red in the muted landscape and blinding white light of the dry lake, in contrast to the blue of a cloudless sky? It is: the leftover sign of a ritual act, the flamboyance of an aesthetic gesture in the face of nature’s muted palette, a symbol for an inner state of ecstatic communion.

In the title of his great painting, Gaugin asked, “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” Color was very much part of his answer. Beyond the optical paradoxes and visual gaming of El Mirage, Crawford’s color signifies his preoccupation with the age-old questions and a willingness to ask them as if they had never been asked before.