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For the better part of two decades, D.C.-based photographer Maxwell MacKenzie has been photographing decaying architecture in the Great Plains, sometimes from the ground and sometimes from the air. His current exhibit—“Going Deep”—has the feel of a final exam, an intimate retrospective on the long arc of his subject matter and his career.
The artist’s own Cross MacKenzie Gallery, where the exhibit is being held, is cozier than many of his past venues, which enforces a less expansive approach. Instead of displaying a succession of collapsing barns linearly, as if they were lining the prairie, “Going Deep” focuses more on matrices that emphasize the passage of time—revealing how time scars, and occasionally revives, the old structures he finds in places like rural Minnesota.
In “Everts Township Homestead II,” a cycle
of six images, the humble building in question goes from red to unpainted to red again, surrounded by land that is variously planted and fallow. The only constant is the sky, which always appears in a pleasant shade of blue.
If such careful arrangements suggest the longitudinal architectural studies of fellow D.C. artist William Christenberry, they do, but MacKenzie also style-checks the formalistic rigor of Bernd and Hilla Becher, assembling series of images in which the common thread is not a specific building but rather a style of vernacular architecture.
In one four-image series, for instance, MacKenzie pairs buildings that are each topped by a decorative cupola. In another series, he assembles a grid of nine buildings that share similar attributes; half the fun is reading the titles to see how MacKenzie has kept them all straight. One structure, he explains in hand-written captions, is notable for its bee hives, while another is marred by a series of bullet holes; another, unexpectedly enough, has a stained-glass window.
One takeaway from the exhibit is that, despite the initial appeal of his early experiments with infrared-sensitive black-and-white film, these monochrome photographs (such as the one at bottom) literally pale in comparison to his subsequent color images. Take his long-exposure image of a building surrounded by semicircular star tracks; it is made all the more compelling by the sky, which is rendered in a chilly shade of blue.
The exhibit’s final images have been installed in a street-facing window, but when I went to look at them, they were hard to see, obscured by the sun’s strong reflection off the plate glass. Even this was kind of fitting; I imagine this sort of sunburst is exactly what wallops MacKenzie all the time out in the fields that he’s so ably documented over the years.
Through March 30 at Cross MacKenzie Gallery, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 333-7970. Wed.-Sat. 12 p.m.-5 p.m.