Gil Blank
Misc Fields
Florian Maier-Aichen’s first solo museum show, curated by Rebecca Morse for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is a tremendously invigorating event. There’s been no shortage of maximalist photography exhibited internationally over the last decade-plus, and while Maier-Aichen is certainly adept at spectacle, what’s most exciting to see is how ably he enlists the plurality of visual idiom to his cause, to which a courtship with Neo-Pictorialism’s grandiosity is just one tangent. He’s managed in the last few years to initiate a project that is highly self-aware but doesn’t trap itself in a graveyard of rhetoric, and that is thrilling to behold but ambiguous enough that it never stoops to pandering. It’s difficult to adequately express how rare an achievement this is.


Many of the pieces are simultaneously loving and snarky, generously shared riffs on some poisonous crush you’ve never completely gotten over: even the most jaded and knowing among us continually need reminding of the nature of our preferred delusions. The Best General View—its title epitomizes his ability for sending you into apoplectic fits of irony and lovesickness—takes plain, perverse delight in sharing and spearing our collectively unreformed need for Western majesty, eternally typified by the Yosemite money shot. He’s kept the tree from Carleton Watkin’s original 1865 version, but he’s also amped up the sky-blues, hyper-dramatized the granite’s shadowy relief, supersized the print’s scale, and digitally “fixed” any number of other unknowable aspects so that his version is a bit like death by chocolate, or by postcard.

The Best General View, 2007. Photograph © Copyright Florian Maier-Aichen.
Courtesy Blum and Poe, Los Angeles, and 303 Gallery, New York.

The x-factor in these images, and the source of their twisted intelligence, is their demonstration of an unremorseful affinity for obsolescence. It’s a natural fit for Hollywood’s crepuscular dream factory, and a stroke of dark inspiration to have staged this show just down the street from the original movie studios, beneath premium hillside real estate still charred by an arsonist’s fire from this past spring. That icky cocktail of desire and tawdriness is brought to the highest state of internal contradiction in his semi-illustrated works. An anachronistic blueprint of the doomed ghost-ship Andrea Doria is meant to appear reanimated, its smokestack still impossibly chugging away in memorial to the crushed hopes of technological salvation.

Untitled, 2007. Photograph © Copyright Florian Maier-Aichen.
Courtesy Blum and Poe, Los Angeles, and 303 Gallery, New York.

Another image shows an ersatz Romanesque crest in shadowy Riefenstahl black-and-white, ridiculously inscribed "Titanus". It looks like some forgotten film company’s mothballed logo, referencing not just the legions of long-dead wannabes next door but also elder local Ed Ruscha’s earlier punny sedition. Desire, as Eros — in Maier-Aichen’s picture, a literal conjunction of tits and ass — is inextricably bound up in the Thanatos of Hollywood vanities and dissolution.

Untitled, 2007. Photograph © Copyright Florian Maier-Aichen.
Courtesy Blum and Poe, Los Angeles, and 303 Gallery, New York.

Diametrically across the gallery is its complement, a different black-and-white image in grainy negative that shows a high-altitude bomber’s-eye view of the cityscape, supine below. It reads like a frame from a wartime newsreel, or the fading retinal trace after an atomic blast.

Untitled, 2007. Photograph © Copyright Florian Maier-Aichen.
Courtesy Blum and Poe, Los Angeles, and 303 Gallery, New York.

What’s important to understand about Maier-Aichen is that his ambivalent relation to kitsch is such that it marks him as neither formulaically postmodern (this despite having studied at UCLA’s fairly doctrinal MFA program) nor caught up in the waves of antimodernist poofery that have led so many photographers to indulge themselves anew in the theatrics of Victorian tableaux. He manages this by locating our interaction with the photographs on a level beyond their mere content, forcing an internalized emotional reckoning with what it is we still want from and hope for in our shared visual language. The differing formats, tropes, and even framing choices all amplify the self-conscious quality of pastiche, employed not as clever commentary but visual catalyst for a meditation on lost causes.


Chamonix — Rue Nationale et Le Mont Blanc exemplifies this by corralling all the stock traits of a classical masterpiece: the exactly right composition, the God’s light, and the quaking autumnal foliage, somehow seemingly requisitioned at will for The Artist. That such ecstatic serendipities tend in a time of common digital theatrics to ring hollow is, you will recognize, trim for the tree. The colors are tweaked to be so accurately and nauseatingly reminiscent of inferior midcentury budget lithography that you do not in fact ever really see Mont Blanc as such, so much as you strain to find the nonexistent barcode and “Milton Bradley 5000 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle” label that you know (just as well as Maier-Aichen does) ought to be plastered over the vista. He even printed the piece to puzzle size (about 24 x 30 inches), and then mounted it into the same kind of box-type frame your Grandma might have used for the one you managed to complete back when you were eight, the one with the church and the cows grazing down in the grassy valley in Switzerland, or Idaho maybe.

Chamonix - Rue Nationale et le Mont Blanc, 2007. Photograph © Copyright Florian Maier-Aichen.
Courtesy Blum and Poe, Los Angeles, and 303 Gallery, New York.

At its best, this can be tremendously exciting and invigorating: Equally magisterial and goofy, Maier-Aichen shows himself to be nothing if not unafraid. The work is Western in the most modern sense: bold, dramatic, boundlessly enthusiastic, and yet, somehow, always aware of its own clunky absurdity. It’s also never shy to dive right into straight-ahead eye-popping beauty, because he continually envisions the possible where others see only wilderness. Though he is a native German living in Los Angeles, he doesn’t labor at all under the awkwardness of the expatriate, and has been able in an unbelievably short time to fully infiltrate the ethos of his adopted environment. His are some of the most adept photographic understandings of what it means to completely inhabit the contradictions of the contemporary experience in the American West.


© Copyright Gil Blank

Florian Maier-Aichen: MOCA Focus
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
June 26 – September 30, 2007

Originally published in Whitewall magazine, Number 7, 2007.