Homelands: Photographs by Robb Hill
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
I always struggle with the notion of reviewing visual art. Theatre, opera, ballet, can all be critiqued to varying degrees based on a deconstruction of the relationship between text, interpretation, performance and production. But a response to one artist’s vision is so painfully (or joyously) subjective, and establishing a context outside of the individual artist’s personal development is more problematic.
Any discussion of Robb Hill’s current work encounters another challenge: tied as it is to a large scale construction project that has been in development for 10 years and will require at least another 12-18 months to be finished, it is an incomplete body of work. So let us not call it a review – perhaps a progress report would be the more appropriate appellation.
The ongoing series is entitled Homelands, and I first encountered it more than three years ago. Mr. Hill is from Utica, Indiana, which is the north side of the east end bridge that will connect the Gene Snyder Freeway in Kentucky to SR 265 in Indiana. Originally announced many years ago as a part of the Ohio River Bridges Project, the plans have generated much controversy on both sides of the river for how much it will necessarily alter the landscape, and have suffered many delays owing to financial difficulties.
It is the former concern that occupies Mr. Hill’s work, the most recent examples of which are currently on exhibit at the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives in the Ekstrom Library. Shot with a panoramic Hasselblad SLR 35mm camera that allows expansive, cinematic compositions, the early images are a portrait of a peaceful, rural landscape, and a community founded on a fundamental relationship to the land. They are relatively unspoiled by development. The latest collection documents the dramatic changes being wrought now that the construction has been in full swing for several months. Oversize cranes and earth moving machines overwhelm the humble countryside, leaving wide tracks in the muddy ground once verdant and green. Familiar ground transformed into alien territory.
A few members of the Utica population are visible in the Homeland photographs, but at this stage in the narrative, they are less of a presence. There is a quality of evacuation in the scenes, an implication of encroachment on the human experience. In one particularly evocative tableau, four separate shots chart the removal of mailboxes from a roadside over time. The prints are deliberately placed apart from each other in the gallery, so that the association between them constitute something of a reward for inquisitive, treasure-hunting viewers, but they are, in effect a microcosm of the entire project: a thumbnail view of the relationship of place and time that is at the heart of the artist’s intention.
Yet Robb Hill’s public statements reinforce the lack of moral judgment, or surfeit of journalistic objectivity, that characterizes the series. Whatever the political issues at hand, he sees this transformation as simply one moment in an ongoing and inexorable reshaping of the environment. Evolution from time and the elements are viewed as just as culpable as human impact, which can be traced to Native-American Mound Builders who reshaped the land in earthworks that we consider essential to their civilization. The human assumption of constancy is an illusion we allow ourselves to indulge in.
A unique method of presentation sets the prints in a position of relief a few inches from the wall, suspended against steel bolts by small round magnets at each corner. Instead of distancing the image within a frame and glass construction, it invites the viewer to connect very directly with the picture. These images are rendered in a rich, exquisite range of gray tones of warmth and depth that might be startling to an audience more accustomed to receiving photography digitally. But make no mistake, no smart phone or laptop will ever capture the sensual quality of fine photographic paper. The temptation to touch the print surface is palpable. To visit Homelands in person is to establish a direct, visceral relationship with classic American photography that is a potent mix of journalistic observation with artistic sensibility.
Homelands: Photographs by Robb Hill
March 12 – May 22, 2015
University of Louisville Photographic Archives
Louisville, KY 40292
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]