There's something instantly refreshing about the show of photographs now on view in the south wing of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's original building.
"Victoria Sambunaris: Taxonomy of a Landscape," the artist's first solo show in a major museum, contains a selection of gorgeous, large-scale photographs that depict the strange and sometimes beautiful ways humans have marked the natural landscape.
That's it. Nothing more or less. No wearying conceptual underpinning to get in the way, no secret references to artists past. Just the work.
Sambunaris' photographs are not expressly critical, nor do they obviously espouse a political point of view. They're presented for exactly what they are: The best work to date of an American artist who has turned her insatiable wanderlust and curiosity into a simple, potent and beautiful body of work.
Sambunaris will narrate a slide show of her work at 6 tonight in the Albright-Knox.
Most of us, on road trips or flights, have noted the same sorts of human imprints on the earth that Sambunaris has made the focus of her work. We notice things like train tracks cutting through old-growth forests or chicken-wire fences perforating otherwise untouched fields of grass.
But few of us have made it our life's work to capture those little intrusions or to delve into the culture and history around them, which is why this exhibition is worth getting lost in.
One of the most striking photographs in the exhibition shows a magnificent view of Hercules Gap, just outside of Ely, Nev. Under a bright blue sky dotted with clouds, two separate rock formations stand side by side, forming a big "V" through which you can glimpse the pristine landscape beyond. At the bottom of the "V," like a little network of toothpicks, is a transmission tower, a tiny human punctuation mark in otherwise entirely natural surroundings.
Other photographs show pipelines snaking across the Alaskan wilderness, tractor-trailers parked on rain-soaked parking lots and trains emerging as if magically from behind rolling hills. All of them leave the viewer with a sense of loneliness, of the sort the artist must have felt when she was making the pictures with her wooden, 5-by-7-inch field camera.
Loneliness, it seems, is at the heart of a lot of this work, despite its apparent concern with human interaction (I hesitate to say "intrusion") with the natural landscape.
As has been noted elsewhere, one of the most compelling parts of the show is the room of Sambunaris' ephemera from her long trips, including journals full of poignant reflections and stories of her travels, gifts from those she encountered along the way and more than a thousand Polaroids arrayed in a perfect grid.
That room, in which it's possible to while away an afternoon, gives viewers a glimpse into the simple motivation behind Sambunaris' work. She is a curious person who likes to travel and happens to have a phenomenal eye. And that's more than enough.
WHO: "Victoria Sambunaris: Taxonomy of a Landscape"
WHEN: Through Jan. 22; artist talk at 6 p.m. today
WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
TICKETS: $5 to $12INFO: 882-8700