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November 9, 2016

Review: Searching for Eve in the American West

By Spear's

Guy Sangster-Adams explores Maryam Eisler’s powerful display, an array of photographs which capture stunning landscapes in an ethereal search for Eve.

‘Such a beautiful, untouched, lonely place, such a new part of what I call the Faraway,’ is how renowned American modernist painter, Georgia O’Keefe, described the inspirational landscape around Ghost Ranch, her home and studio, in Abiquiú, New Mexico. It is a landscape which has similarly captivated and inspired Maryam Eisler and is the setting for the stunning photographs in her first exhibition, Searching for Eve in the American West.

Hitherto, London-based, Iranian-born Eisler has been best known as a highly influential patron of the arts, collector, editor and publisher, including being a member of the Tate’s International Council, co-chair of the Tate’s MENAAC acquistions committee, and a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery, London. As an executive editor her books, all co-published by Transglobe Publishing and Thames & Hudson, include, Art and Patronage: The Middle East, Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and their Studios, and London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City. The exhibition, Searching for Eve in the American West, shows her to also be a photographer of note.

She first visited Ghost Ranch in 2012 whilst working on the book, Art Studio America: Contemporary Artist Spaces. O’Keefe lived and worked on the estate from the 1940s right up until deteriorating health forced her to leave two years before her death in 1986. Set in an extraordinary desert landscape, with ragged cliffs and crags in a palette of red, ochre, and yellow, and far reaching views, not least to Cerro Perdernal, a flint-edged narrow mesa on the summit of which O’Keefe’s ashes were scattered. The painter found the landscape infinitely inspiring, as she said, ‘it is a place I have painted before… even now I must do it again’.

The location had a similarly profound effect on Eisler as she found that for years after her trip she was haunted by memories of the ‘grand dinosaur-fossil-bearing’ landscape delineated by the brilliant desert light – as she says, ‘oh what light!’ In the summer of 2015 she returned, this time ‘not as a recorder of art history but more as an artist in search of the ultimate aesthetic adventure’. As she explains, ‘I ventured forth to seek some spiritual urge of union with untouched and untroubled nature, always battling the elements of time in their transforming presence’.

Although the landscape is now largely unpopulated it carries the trace of cultures of occupation, not least the Gallina people who occupied the area from around 1050-1300, for whom Cerro Perdernal was a source of chert, a flint stone that they used to make tools and knives. In her photographs Eisler chose to repopulate the landscape with each shot featuring one of four female models photographed nude. This cleverly and dramatically brings both an immediacy to the layers of history and prehistory with which the area abounds, bring back the people, myths and legends from faraway time to the Faraway place, but also creates a humanising scale that both amplifies and enables the viewer to understand the epic scale of the environment.

For example, in Eisler’s photograph, Winona (First-born Daughter), the model reclines on the enormous weather felled and striated trunk of an ancient tree, which also bears wonderfully intriguing although unexplained carvings – a Native American face and the word ‘peaceful’. The smoothness of the model’s skin juxtaposes beautifully with the gnarled bark, the flowing lines of her figure echoing the curvilinear form of the bark. In the same moment she is both framed by the tree and in turn frames the tree and in so doing the landscapes layers of both habitational and natural history. She is in touch and in tune with both and enables the viewer to also be.

When Eisler returned home, while contemplating the portfolio of images she had taken in New Mexico she immersed herself in American modernist poetry, including works by Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and E.E. Cummings, and became further inspired through the connections she found both to the images and the landscape that inspired it. ‘It was only then that I realised the purpose of my own poetic adventure: the search for Eve, my muse, somewhere between the majestic heavens and Mother Earth,’ she says, ‘standing atop the rocky inclines, as sensual and powerful as the monumental nature that had surrounded her.’

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This is particularly and dramatically encapsulated in two of Eisler’s photographs that both feature her models on rocky outcrops. In Maralah (Born during an Earthquake) it takes a moment to locate the model, she appears to be both integral to the rock and to be growing out of it, imbued with its elemental strength, but also to be the most beautiful surprise of nature like a pearl in oyster, or perhaps in reflection of the area’s pre-history – a flesh and blood ‘fossil’ exposed post-earthquake. She appears as though she has been there since time immemorial.

Whereas in Almika (She of the Sun), the model pervades a powerful strength of modernity channeling both the wealth of history in the rock and the generations of women that precede her. This is the only photograph in the exhibition in which the model is partly clothed, her suede fringed skirt and moccassin boots, and talismanic necklace echoing the Native American tribes whose shadows on the landscape are another layer of its history. Just as in Eisler’s photograph the model’s shadow, as she stands powerfully on a ledge, arching her body towards the sun, casts a strong and resolute shadow on the ancient rockface. In the exhibition catalogue the photograph is published facing a Native American proverb with the lines, ‘keep the warmth of the summer sun in your heart, and the great spirit will always be with you’.

There are parallels in Eisler’s photographs with the work of renowned American photographer and environmentalist, Ansel Adams (1869–1950), alongside whose work they sit wonderfully well in their striking depiction of the landscapes of the American West. They also sit well with Adams’ work in their intention and effect, in that Adams said of his work: ‘both the grand and the intimate aspects of nature can be revealed in the expressive photograph. Both can stir enduring affirmations and discoveries, and can surely help the spectator in his search for identification with the vast world of natural beauty and wonder surrounding him.’

But equally, in her dramatic and powerful use of nude models in her photographs, bringing an intimacy and tactility to the epic, Eisler’s work also has echoes of a a less-known American photographer, Ann Brigman (1869–1950), whose photographs, many of which were taken in the Sierra Nevada, frequently focussed on a female nude, dramatically captured in natural landscapes or trees.

Ultimately the power and success of Searching for Eve in the American West is that in the photographs Eisler captures and conveys a wonderful duality of the primordial and the modern and a wonderful lineage of Eve from the beginning until today, or as E.E. Cummings writes in one of the poems that inspired Eisler, i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart), ‘the root of the root and the bud of the bud/and the sky of the sky of a tree called life’. To close with the wonderful sense of continuum conveyed by the photographs, this can equally be evocatively expressed by a line from the same poem: ‘you are whatever a moon has always meant and whatever a sun will always sing is you’.

Searching for Eve in the American West: Maryam Eisler

3rd November – 12th November 2016
Tristan Hoare Gallery
6 Fitzroy Square, London, W1T 5HJ

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