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Book Review: Half Wild


Book Review Half Wild By Peter Happel Christian Reviewed by Adam Bell The famed author, environmentalist, and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir first visited Yosemite in 1868. Years later in 1890, he successfully lobbied Congress to designate Yosemite a national park. Containing some of the most iconic landscapes in the United States, Yosemite often stands for archetypal wilderness in the United States.

Half Wild. By Peter Happel Christian.
Conveyor Arts, 2014.
 
Half Wild
Reviewed by Adam Bell

Half Wild
By Peter Happel Christian
Conveyor Arts, 2014. 112 pp., illustrated throughout, 5¾x8¼".


The famed author, environmentalist, and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir first visited Yosemite in 1868. Years later in 1890, he successfully lobbied Congress to designate Yosemite a national park. Containing some of the most iconic landscapes in the United States, Yosemite often stands for archetypal wilderness in the United States. Like many national parks, it serves as benchmark against which we measure the natural world that surrounds us, while also fortifying the illusion that we can maintain a place that’s untouched. National parks may be a necessary bulwark against rapacious development and expansion, but pose a vexing conundrum. The notion that one could cordon off a space and designate it as wild assumes we stand fully apart from nature. Borrowing its name from Muir’s book Our National Parks, Peter Happel Christian’s Half Wild explores what Muir described the “half wild parks and gardens of towns.” Through a mixed assortment of images, Half Wild explores the divergent ways in which we refashion, preserve, and map an elusive wilderness that is always out of reach.

Half Wild. By Peter Happel Christian. Conveyor Arts, 2014.

Moving between the suburban Midwest and Yosemite, Half Wild attempts to define and map the illusive gap between the wild and suburban world. Combining landscapes, still-lifes, studio fabrications, and portraits, Happel Christian employs a variety of different visual strategies to engage his subject. Broken branches, camouflaged and fake rocks, strange holes in the ground, spray-painted grass, and photogramed nickels are all some of the many subjects depicted in Half Wild. If the ‘wild’ is itself an obtuse and mythically defined signified, Happel Christian’s work orbits this already elusive subject by compiling a heterogeneous collection of signs that point obliquely at their subject. Each image reads as a fragmented attempt to simulate or point back to something wild — signs gesturing at a murky signified.

Although the book includes many images, it is unified by still-lifes of various objects including rocks, twigs, broken ice or glass, and crystals. Shot both indoors and out, the fake collides with the real. Tin foil masquerades as a geode and a plastic crystal refracts light as it if we real. Even the real items, like the branches, which are alternately garishly light or dropped on a mute background, seem oddly out of place and fake. Corralled in the studio or shot outdoors, they are stripped bare and divorced from their typical surroundings. Dancing around notions of the wild, Happel Christian’s investigative photographs brings us closer to his subject than we might have imagined given their often minimal content. The pattern of pointing that occurs in the images and their careful sequencing becomes a gestural conjuring or performance of the wild. Slowly the differences between the crumpled foil and granite dissolve.

Half Wild. By Peter Happel Christian. Conveyor Arts, 2014.
Half Wild. By Peter Happel Christian. Conveyor Arts, 2014.

Again and again, the simulation of the ‘wild’ or its fragmentary nature is revealed, promised, erased, or withheld. Shrubs are marked for removal with white paint and a giant pile of cinderblocks is ironically topped with a sign pointing to a real mountain in the distance. In another image, entitled Sun Sets, the bright afternoon sunset passes over the sunset on a calendar landscape painting—the real sun overriding and merging with its representation. Images are doubled or shown in slight variation inviting us to compare and scrutinize. At three points in the book we also encounter images of the word ‘OK’ spray painted on the grass. Read variously as questions or assertions, these sign posts simultaneously check in on us as readers to see if we’re following, while also laying the foundations of Happel Christian’s argument. You got that, right? Is this ok? Does this make sense?

Half Wild. By Peter Happel Christian. Conveyor Arts, 2014.

Although not immediately apparent, it might be appropriate to think of Half Wild as a fragmented map or atlas. At first glance, the book’s small, unassuming size resembles a humble nature guide, much like the many volumes penned by Muir himself, but the book’s coda makes its map-like aspirations clear. Opening with a cropped map of Yosemite, the book’s concluding section is printed on a cream matte paper and includes Borges’ famous one paragraph short story about cartography, “Del rigor en la ciencia,” or “On the Rigor of Science,” an nice essay by Liz Sales, which explores the works parallel to maps and mapping, and an index for all the plates along with their titles. In retrospect, Half Wild starts to feel more like the field notes of a cartographer struggling to collect and decipher all the necessary elements to make their map. Even the smaller reproduced plates in the back of the book begin to resemble a jumbled and indecipherable map legend — signs and symbols that reference a distant landscape or landscape in transition.

Half Wild. By Peter Happel Christian. Conveyor Arts, 2014.

In Half Wild, Happel Christian has taken a well-worn subject, namely our relationship with the natural world, and explored it with humor and erudition. If maps are meant to reveal and describe, they can just as easily displace and confuse. Like the maddeningly exacting cartographers in Borges story, Happel Christian attempts to map the territory of the ‘half wild’ with intentionally varied results. Each effort to define or locate his subject shifts the target and expands the map. As much about the impossibility of photographic representation as it is about our relationship to the natural world, Half Wild also reveals the fluid nature of the boundaries we draw around us. The landscape, like maps and photographs, can only tell us so much. In the end, we’re left to hover in doubt between what we know, think, or assume is wild.—Adam Bell

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including AfterimageThe Art Book ReviewThe Brooklyn RailfototazoFoam MagazineLay Flatphoto-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and the forthcoming Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)


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