What this country needs are pristine landscapes and fine cars to drive through them at top speed (how gorgeous are Pacific sunsets glimpsed from twisty cliffside roads!). Seriously, how to reconcile these conflicting imperatives? David Maisel's magnificent aerial photographs of the parched 200-square-mile Owens Lake (east of the Sierra Nevada, upslope from Los Angeles) proffer no overt polemics, but they do depict, in stunning detail and panoramic scope, our huge environmental footprint, or bootprint. They also find a paradoxical beauty in toxic dust storms, crystalline encrustations of white salt, brine pools full of reddish-purple halobacteria blooms, and — here's the happy ending! — the EPA's 2001-02 remedial Shallow Flooding, which brought migratory and nesting shorebirds back to what had been, since the 1920s, a vast, arid wasteland. Maisel, a social documentarian, conceptualist, and landscape photographer (airborne division), found his calling while exploring the devastated Mount St. Helens in 1983; he describes his subsequent studies, both landscape- and artifact-based, as "mining the aesthetic territory of the apocalyptic sublime, and ... addressing themes of loss, elegy, and memorialization ...."
While low-key environmentalism makes the show (which is presented in partnership with Kala Art Institute) relevant to the Hazel Wolf Gallery, the photographs are no less compelling as pure artworks. If abstract expressionist canvases were large-scale arenas in which nature could enact itself through the medium of the instinctive, intuitive painter (remember Pollock asserting that he was nature), then it's oddly appropriate that these vistas, "discovered" or excerpted by Maisel, should have been created in unconscious collaboration by thirsty LA city fathers ("It's Chinatown, Jake!"), opportunistic salt miners, and the elements. As shown here, The Lake Project comprises fifteen color photos, 29-inch or 48-inch square, and a 48-inch by 96-inch gridded photo-mosaic of fifty smaller views of the flood basin. Diana Gaston (Aperture) links the landscape and the human body: "From the air, the landscape emerges as a dynamic biological structure; even in its depleted state, the river and its tributaries adhere to the desert floor like nerve endings, veins, or arteries; the mottled red river bank suggests magnified cellular patterns, a coagulated pool of blood, an inferno." It's a truism in traditional societies, one that we moderns have forgotten, but we are the world. Artist's talk Thursday, March 11, 7 p.m.; BrownPaperTickets.com. The Lake Project runs through May 21 at Hazel Wolf Gallery, David Brower Center (2150 Allston Way, Berkeley). 510-809-0900 or BrowerCenter.org