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In which our art critics highlight a favorite work on view in a local gallery. Click to enlarge!

Cliff Evans‘ work in “Sites and Stations,” currently on view in the University of Maryland’s Stamp Gallery, is a bit of a quagmire once you start to break it down. He starts with a Photoshop collage of some like elements: houses under construction, a few cranes, maybe some metered pipes running through the composition. It’s a basic beginning that references a history of collage dating back to Hannah Hoch, albeit with a more believable development of space and place.

Now throw in camera movement. Most of Evans’ videos incorporate some kind of omnidirectional dolly (back, forward, sideways) that cranes through the composition. Focal length is convincingly applied as elements move in and out of focus. Instead of inhabiting a two-dimensional  space, the collage has the added dimension of looping time.

“Camping at Home #1” is a nearly three-minute silent video pulled from gobs of still images appropriated from the Internet. Some of them are animated. For instance, a tank, which is transformed into a 30-wheeled steel millipede, rolls past the camera, which then pulls back through a nylon tent city and Coleman camper lamps. A construction worker is busy fixing something. The camera pulls back further through a maze of pipes and fences. It swings right and we see a city under construction. Multiarmed cranes are busy at work. In the spaces between framed walls and water pipes, we see men plying their trade and cars passing through. The camera moves underground, pulls out the other side, and reveals more cranes at work, a classic car pulling a classic camper trailer, an excavated landscape being mined in the background, and we’re back in the tent city long enough to pause on a family of refugees, before the millipede tank rumbles past once more.

Broken down as a linear sequence of images and objects, the work seems incomprehensible, and unquestionably surreal. So: What does it all mean?

We carve the land. We build on the land. Once it’s built and populated, we urbanites sometimes escape to the countryside for a night of camping. Evans’ refugees remind us there are people out there who really are roughing it. They’ve been displaced, perhaps by machines of war. When we invade, we sometimes eventually occupy. We might strip the land of its natural resources, and maybe build a new city on top of the city we just knocked down. Sometimes we send relief aide to construct homes, shelters, and schools. Infrastructure makes a land habitable by domesticating it—-until the inhabitants once again want to escape. In Evans’ work, the relationships between tents for recreation and tents for refuge become clearer, as do the links between tanks and front-end loaders, and between a man in a hard forming concrete and a man in military fatigues building a wall. Though the visual play between discordant elements is disorienting, if we pay attention long enough, and allow the camera to pull back far enough, we can start to see how it all ties together.