15
Jun
09

Exhibition: ‘Downstream: Colorado River Photographs of Karen Halverson’ at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Exhibition dates: 30th May – 28th September

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Karen Halverson. 'Lodore Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument' from the Downstream series 1994 - 95

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Karen Halverson
‘Lodore Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument’ from the ‘Downstream’ series
1994 – 95

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Karen Halverson. 'Hite Crossing, Lake Powell, Utah' from the 'Downstream' series 1994 - 95

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Karen Halverson
‘Hite Crossing, Lake Powell, Utah’ from the ‘Downstream’ series
1994 – 95

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Karen Halverson. 'Boulder Beach, Lake Mead, Nevada' from the 'Downstream' series 1994 - 95

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Karen Halverson
‘Boulder Beach, Lake Mead, Nevada’ from the ‘Downstream’ series
1994 – 95

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“To celebrate the expansion and reinstallation of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens presents an exhibition of works from American photographer Karen Halverson’s Colorado River series, on view May 30 through Sept. 28, 2009. “Downstream: Colorado River Photographs of Karen Halverson” will be on display in the Scott Galleries’ Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing, inaugurating a new changing exhibition space that will highlight photography and works on paper that, because of the fragile nature of the medium, cannot be placed on permanent display.

The exhibition will feature 26 works from Halverson’s Downstream series as well as a sampling of images from The Huntington’s historic holdings related to the Colorado River region, including photographs from John Wesley Powell’s pioneering expedition down the Colorado in 1871 and a snapshot album compiled in 1940 by Mildred Baker, one of the first women to successfully navigate the river from Green River, Wyo., to Boulder (now Hoover) Dam.

Halverson (b. 1941) says she woke one wintry morning in 1994 convinced that she needed to photograph the Colorado River. An accomplished landscape photographer who had already spent 20 years exploring the American West, she embarked on a two-year encounter with the vast terrain along the river’s serpentine route.

The desire to explain, understand, and experience the 1,700-mile river – which originates in Wyoming and Colorado before converging in Utah toward its terminus in Mexico – has exerted a powerful influence on a long line of explorers, scientists, thrill seekers, writers, artists, and photographers. Once largely wild, the modern river has been tamed by dams built to slake the American West’s thirst for water and power. Today the river’s reservoirs supply 30 million people.

“In her resonant imagery, Halverson speaks both to this immutable, rugged past while confronting the river’s complicated and often contested present,” says Jennifer Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington.

Lush green riverbanks frame a seemingly remote Colorado River in “Shafer Trail, Near Moab, Utah” – a dramatic departure from the river-turned-lake in “Wahweap Marina, Lake Powell, Arizona,” in which the setting sun illuminates a satellite dish, a trio of passersby, and a jumble of houseboats set against distant rock outcroppings. “Davis Gulch, Lake Powell, Utah” captures Halverson’s voice especially succinctly: the power of nature in the form of a gigantic sandstone wall dwarfing a tiny group of plastic lawn chairs, lined up along the river bank, with not a soul in sight.

“In my travels along the Colorado,” says Halverson, “sometimes I find beauty, sometimes desecration, often a perplexing and absurd combination.”

Halverson’s large-format color photography references the 19th-century era of exploration when the United States, still reeling from the Civil War, saw photographers fan across the West to make pictures for scientific and commercial ends. Many of these iconic views by William H. Bell, John K. Hillers, Timothy O’Sullivan and others form the core of The Huntington’s superlative photography collection. Halverson consulted these works in preparation for her own trips.

The two years Halverson spent hiking, driving, and rafting along the Colorado brought her to a more profound understanding of the river and her relationship to it. During her travels, Halverson wrote, “I feel my place, small and finite in relation to space and time: I feel my self, expansive and trusting.”

Text from The Huntington Library website

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Karen Halverson. 'Big River, California' from the 'Downstream' series 1994 - 95

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Karen Halverson
‘Big River, California’ from the ‘Downstream’ series
1994 – 95

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Karen Halverson. 'Davis Gulch, Lake Powell' from the 'Downstream' series 1994 - 95

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Karen Halverson
‘Davis Gulch, Lake Powell’ from the ‘Downstream’ series
1994 – 95

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“One wintry morning in1994, Karen Halverson (b. 1941) awoke convinced she needed to photograph the Colorado River. An accomplished artist who had already spent 20 years exploring the AmericanWest, she set off on a two-year encounter with the vast, breathtaking terrain along the river’s serpentine route. “The impulse to photograph the Colorado River came to me out of the blue,” she writes, “but I acted on it as if it were my destiny.” Personal destiny and the Colorado River have long been linked in the lives of the explorers, scientists, writers, artists, and thrill seekers who have sought to understand and experience this remarkable river.

“Nature appears to have been partial to this stream,” noted “Captain” Samuel Adams, who described the river in 1869. The Colorado and its major tributary, the Green River, run 1,700 miles from headwaters in the Rocky Mountains and Wyoming’s Wind River Range to a terminus in Mexico. Sheer size helps explain the river’s enduring allure; the Colorado’s gargantuan watershed covers a quarter of a million miles and runs through seven states. The Colorado is the riparian center and symbol of the American West. Once wild, the river has been tamed by dams built to slake the arid West’s demand for water and power; 30 million people are dependent on it today.

Halverson’s large-format color photography alludes to a 19th-century era of exploration when photographers fanned out across the West to make pictures for scientific and commercial ends. Iconic views by William H. Bell (1830–1910), John K. Hillers (1843–1925), Timothy O’Sullivan (ca. 1840–1882), and others captured timeless landscapes of fierce, often forbidding, beauty. Halverson looked at these works in preparation for her trips, viewing them as documentary and visual points of departure for her own image making. Beyond the debt she owes these photographic pioneers, Halverson is firmly rooted in a late 20th-century aesthetic that comments on humanity’s use, and misuse, of the environment.

Beginning in the 1970s, a group of photographers, almost all of them men – who are now sometimes called the “New Topographers” – used their cameras to criticize the effects of rampant urban and suburban growth on western lands. Sprawling cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas owe their existence almost entirely to the importation of water from the Colorado River. As Halverson rightly claims, today the river is a “water delivery system,” with its dozens of reservoirs, dams, and diversions ensuring the allocation of virtually every drop for human needs …

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Karen Halverson. 'Near Palo Verde, California' from the 'Downstream' series 1994 - 95

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Karen Halverson
‘Near Palo Verde, California’ from the ‘Downstream’ series
1994 – 95

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Karen Halverson. 'Imperial Dam, near Yuma, Arizona' from the 'Downstream' series 1994-95

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Karen Halverson
‘Imperial Dam, near Yuma, Arizona’ from the ‘Downstream’ series
1994-95

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Yet ‘Downstream’ is no visual jeremiad railing against environmental abuse. Nor is it a dispassionate travelogue of the two years Halverson spent hiking, driving, and rafting along the Colorado. The wild terrain that flabbergasted early explorers is still here in the Paleozoic strata of gigantic rock outcroppings, the ancient calm of ghostly canyons, the dizzying heights overlooking a ribbon of water far below. And the colors – ochre, cerulean blue, deep red, electric green – are all intensified against the palette of a dammed river running colder and deeper than if it flowed freely. A modern-day beauty even finds itself inscribed in steel and concrete, whether in the sleek form of a pipeline or the still surface of an irrigation canal.

But it is in the bizarre, sometimes humorous, intersections of past and present that Downstream gains its potency. Cheap plastic lawn chairs, sitting vacant, look puny and ridiculous against a looming canyon wall. Weekend revellers pump fists skyward on the shores of Lake Mead, a giant reservoir held in place by Hoover Dam. A garden hose waters a scrawny palm tree in a desert oasis populated by rows of RVs.

What is gained and what is lost by controlling the Colorado River? And what are the river’s limits? Halverson’s Downstream series asks the viewer to contemplate these questions in a time when the arid West’s thirsty population threatens to overwhelm technological as well as natural resources, and when our well-watered urban lives remain utterly disconnected from riparian realities. Through her resonant imagery, Halverson speaks to the immutability of the river’s past while confronting its complex, contested present and future.”

Jennifer A. Watts, Curator of Photographs from The Huntington Library Halverson Gallery guide

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Karen Halverson. 'Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Wyoming' from the 'Downstream' series 1994-95

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Karen Halverson
‘Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Wyoming’ from the ‘Downstream’ series
1994-95

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The Huntington Library
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Road
San Marino, CA  91108

The Huntington Library website

Karen Halverson Photographs website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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