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'Writing on the Wall' Captures Divisive Politics in Textural Traces

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Richard Misrach, 'Trump Loves American People,' North of Reno, Nevada, 2016. (Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery)

Bay Area native Richard Misrach has traveled across the United States over the course of his celebrated four-decade career. In that time, he’s captured the loneliness that shadows leisure and the myriad costs of our petrochemical addiction, all as an exploration of our fraught relationship to the environment.

The Writing on the Wall, the latest chapter in Misrach’s long-form Desert Cantos project, pivots toward photography’s anthropological potential, though the subject is anything but dusty or distant.

Richard Misrach, 'Shotgun practice, "he will return," Nevada,' 2016.
Richard Misrach, ‘Shotgun practice, “he will return,” Nevada,’ 2016. (Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery)

Textual artifacts made their first appearance in Misrach’s 2005 series Destroy This Memory, photographs made in the weeks immediately following Hurricane Katrina. The photographer side-stepped the prevailing media position that exploited survivors’ suffering for profit in favor of a more ethical documentary approach. He photographed the graffiti he encountered scrawled on any surface that wasn’t overwhelmed by flood waters, marks that alternately convey raw anger, hopelessness, dark humor and vows to rebuild.

Now, more than a decade on, Misrach once again conveys a moment of national crisis through scribbled interventions that transmit the dismay — or unalloyed joy — produced by the 2016 presidential election.

Richard Misrach, 'Swastika,' Barstow, California, 2017.
Richard Misrach, ‘Swastika,’ Barstow, California, 2017. (Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery)

Returning to familiar locations throughout Nevada, Arizona and Southern California, Misrach photographed sites where people left their opinions in what may be the oldest form of social commentary.


Weathered boulders in the Yucca and Lucerne Valley regions have for years served as canvases for those driven to express whatever mundane or profound thought might cross their mind. A close look at the 32-frame panel that closes Misrach’s Fraenkel installation reveals rocks that have been painted over repeatedly, the stony canvases restored to new in preparation for the next layer of comments. Not everything is obscured, however, and the contrast between innocent pronouncements of undying love against the brutality symbolized by spray-painted swastikas provides a sobering visual experience.

Misrach also photographed throughout the Inland Empire, a conservative stronghold still struggling to recover from 2008’s crippling financial downturn. On the interior and exterior walls of planned housing communities that were abandoned, closed fist symbols associated with worldwide liberation movements coexist alongside menacing admonishments ordering those who don’t belong to leave.

Richard Misrach, 'Desolation, Calipatria, California, 2016.
Richard Misrach, ‘Desolation, Calipatria, California, 2016. (Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery)

At their core, these examples of mark making visualize the relatable human desire to be acknowledged, even if mutual comprehension of what is expressed is impossible, especially amidst an ever-shifting socio-political context.

Current political dialogue in the United States, in person and on social media platforms, can barely be called a ‘dialogue.’ We talk past — not to — each other, and the topic is nothing less than the future of the country. Yet a slender reserve persists in trying to understand each other and the positions or beliefs so passionately defended. Perhaps Misrach’s stark photographs afford us the opportunity to witness those with whom we disagree in moments of unfiltered expression. And perhaps the textual traces captured in The Writing on the Wall will some day act, as the artist suggests, as hieroglyphics that could guide us to a gracious, unified understanding that has eluded us for so long.

‘The Writing on the Wall’ is on view at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco through Aug. 16, 2017. Click here for more information.

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