Photographs by Victoria Sambunaris are easy to admire, challenging to truly appreciate and surprising in their simple, analytical persistence.
The first response one is likely to have to Sambunaris’ large (39-by-55 inch) C-prints is to feel the images as breathtaking epics.
They are large, luminous landscapes, most recently of dramatic locations in the American West and Northwest. Each exposure is expertly framed and each print is handsomely mounted. Something about the color and composition is intrinsically contemporary. What quasi-sophisticated art fanboy wouldn’t want the minimal adornment of a Sambunaris sparsely located—just so—on an indoor wall with a knowing wink about the interplay between the natural landscape and the built environment?
It also helps—for that crowd at least—that Sambunaris did her graduate work at Yale in the late ’90s, during that school’s apex as the “it” program for budding art celebrities. Representing the first American generation of a Greek immigrant family, Sambunaris was raised with a less jaded view of these late, great days of the American experiment. Her combination of enthusiasm and academic savoir-faire saw her slumming around the architecture department during her time at Yale, and her early, much noticed work exudes the kind of formal rigor one would expect from such an experience.
Now, with simultaneous solo exhibitions at the Lannan Foundation Gallery and James Kelly Contemporary, and with a cadre of adoring fans and her New York gallerist in tow, it feels a bit like Sambunaris’ Big Fat Greek Art Career.
But if Sambunaris is popular with the shiny people, her work resonates in the backwaters and remote recesses of the county. If there is anything innately Greek about Sambunaris’ work, it is more Odysseus and less Nia Vardalos. She lives in New York but, increasingly, cannot sleep well there. She’s tuned to the rhythms of the road, where she racks up tens of thousands of miles in her station wagon, sleeping under the stars and soaking up the soul of the land.
She chums it up with miners and border guards and the blue-collar bones of the country in her pursuit of a kind of ethno-archaeological photography. Sambunaris isn’t really interested in beauty—she’s obsessed with geology. And history. And the tug-of-war that goes on between the raw, burbling power of the planet and the sheer hubris and ingenuity of humans. To that end, Sambunaris sometimes photographs pure nature and sometimes her crop is almost solely the hand of man, but more often it is the intersection of both.
At a basic level, her strategy makes for ready comparison to any number of other photographers—none of which Sambunaris downplays—but her real inspiration comes from characters like John McPhee and John Wesley Powell, writers and explorers who brashly redefined the American understanding of place.
Sambunaris remains an architecture junkie, but her lens is searingly forensic. If there is a corner store in the frame, it might well be the store on the route to work in the mines that pepper the distant hillside scraping the horizon. Therefore, one often looks at a Sambunaris photo only to sink into a slow examination of geological time and presence, human schedule and environment, and the millions of tiny nexuses of cause and effect that ripple through both.
It’s perhaps arguable as to whether all of this context may be found in the work and without benefit of a press release or a conversation with the artist but, in truth, it can be. Just as one slowly begins to feel the reverberations when confronted by, say, an Ad Reinhardt painting, the tides of awareness begin to roll with a dedicated viewing of Sambunaris’ work. Every clue is present, and it takes little more than time and willingness to begin to unravel the conspiracies of history, the accidents of timing and the inevitability of change that play out so persistently in our midst.
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