William Lamson is no control freak. In fact, he creates installations and ambitious outdoor works that rely on mostly uncontrollable physical forces for their existence. His thematically linked photographs and video, sculpture, and performance pieces often involve tremendous scale and require both time and sweaty exertion to be realized.
It’s therefore understandable that Lamson’s Fieldwork exhibition is more limited than the environmental projects he’s completed everywhere from the East River’s slack-tide zone near his home in Brooklyn to an ocean-side cliff in Chile. Yet despite being a pared-down show within the confines of the University of Tennessee’s Downtown Gallery, the vast desert environment from which Fieldwork emerges is somehow tangible.
Five skinny columns supporting crumbling blocks of sand stand in the windows at the front of the gallery. The most intact cube, on top of a column painted to match the color of the sand, suggests the plausible goal of an artist less challenging than Lamson: to have a pedestal and the cube appear to be made from the same substance. Ironically, Lamson’s originality lies in his surrender to matter around him and its persistence in dominating his efforts and the form they take.
Moving through the exhibition space, with its many photographs, HD video, and 14 panels of glass-sandwiching evaporated salt water, viewers could indeed conclude that illusion is the precise opposite of what Lamson’s after. And if you don’t mind a seamless loop of footage showing a Jeep-tracked, metallic-looking emergency blanket tumbling rapidly across scorched terrain in a mesmerizing sort of dance, all that relentless blowing might just blow your mind.
On the one hand, Lamson imposes himself on sites including White Sands in New Mexico and the Southwest’s Mojave Desert (for instance, sprinkling a path of sugar that in heat becomes glass-like or gauging a deep cut into sand with a bottle dragged by the force of a kite). Furthermore, he presumably attempts to achieve somewhat specific results through differing approaches, despite the random influences his work is subjected to. On the other hand, he also opens the metaphorical barn door, allowing animals to leave their milking stations and plowing tackle behind to roam freely.
We might expect images referring to Lamson’s methods and progress to be a boring kind of aside, especially considering the elementally dramatic reality of his three-dimensional works. The photographs and video in Fieldwork nevertheless have an integrity all their own, whether it’s due to interesting composition, Lamson’s intuitive timing, or their demonstration that an artist’s process can be every bit as intriguing as any object or effect produced.
Lamson also reminds us that we live in a world where the relative significance of different events is often measured by the extent to which they’re recorded for posterity—the record likely outlasting whatever has been documented. A so-called legitimizing record thus becomes as real as an event or thing itself. As a photographer friend of mine who observed the tragedy in Manhattan on 9/11 explains it, although he was present in the chaos and choking dust, what had happened seemed unreal until he saw it on television once he was back at his apartment.
Given the earthy and poetic titles Lamson has chosen for past projects—such as “Mercy of the Waves” and “A Line Describing the Sun”—it’s too bad he hasn’t come up with titles for anything in his Downtown Gallery show. In this instance, with the exception of one photograph showing a strip of what resembles sheet metal mirroring the sky as it spills like a stream from between boulders, the grouping of the nameless pictures aids in identifying what’s on display. A series of 10 prints documenting a line drawn in the sand which looks like a furrow in snow looks like an arid landscape when, in the last frame, a smidgen of dusty plant life appears in the sea of sand.
In his lecture at UT the evening of on Feb. 28, Lamson spoke of “opportune moments,” “colossal sublime force,” and his quest for equilibrium. Wind, water, pressure, heat, weight, reflectivity, and movement are certainly quite familiar phenomena. Yet like aspects of a brilliantly simple song, they’re manipulated by Lamson in a manner that not only shapes his work, but does so in a way that seems entirely natural and inevitable.