Mount St. Helens
March 17 - May 12, 2012
Executed between 1981 and 1990, the Mount St. Helens cycle represents a key moment in Gohlke’s career. At once a break from the depiction of the ever-urbanized landscape of his New Topographic works of the 1970s, this series –in expansive detail- is an extension of the earlier work’s documentary practice. The gallery exhibition marks the first presentation of the series in Los Angeles and is the first since the 2005 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, curated by the late John Szarkowski.
On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens, located in the Cascade Mountains of southeast Washington, erupted with the force equivalent to 1600 times the energy released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The initial blast decimated nearly 231 square miles of immediate land and an additional 22,000 acres of timber were damaged. Subsequent ash flows and gas exposure following the initial explosion rendered the landscape a barren waste. In 1981, Gohlke made his first trip to Mount St. Helens to document the aftermath of the eruption. It would be a visit that would eventually lead to four more returns in the next nine years, often with the intent of creating a time-lapsed narrative of a particular area captured during a previous trip. Though the series portrays attitudes of beauty in the way images of landscape and nature so readily infer, Mount St. Helens is a subtle refutation of this. Eschewing the dramatic beauty of a scene’s idealized moment, Gohlke’s decade-long work on Mount St. Helens is patterned in spirit to his other major bodies of work, most noticeably in that of his catalogic Grain Elevators series – repeated documentation, over time, reveals the extent of humanity’s impact on the landscape.
The timing of Mount St. Helens’ eruption, coinciding with the rise of cheaply available televisions globally, was apt: the disaster initiated the concept of catastrophic nature as a media event. For all its natural beauty, Mount St. Helens is humanist in intention, however dark. Like Edmund Burke’s notion of the Sublime, these works are manifestations of nature as seemingly opposing ideas in harmony, limning beauty, terror, and the uncontrollable all in one.