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Karen Halverson: Survey at Robert Klein Gallery

"North of Hveravellir, Iceland," Karen Halverson, 2012.


By Puloma Ghosh

Boston, MA – In the neat and elegant Robert Klein Photography Gallery on Newbury Street, Karen Halverson’s “Survey” exhibit opens windows into the wide landscapes of the American West, with a smattering of Icelandic countryside. Each image depicts a vibrant natural vista with at times subtle, and at times very clear, indications of human influence interrupting the scene.

Halverson’s exploration of the West dates back several decades, to 1983. Although her origins are eastern, she traces her fascination for the hot and often desolate scenery to a trip she took as a child.

“When I was five years old, my mother was a widow, and she took her three children on a three month trip around the American West,” she recalled. “It was a unusual thing to do around that time. I saw a woman comfortable being almost alone in the landscape and it exposed me to another part of the country and made me realize there’s a much bigger world out there, and the west acquired a kind of mythical importance to me.”

This childhood experience eventually drew her back to the West when she grew up, attending college there and eventually travelling the rural areas with her camera. What at first began as wanderlust became a lifetime of research and storytelling through her lens.

Eventually, Halverson took notice of the human element in these beautiful natural features. “I’m very interested in content rather than just beauty — it matters to me what the photographs are about, so it’s important to have a sense of knowledge of history of the place where I’m at. I like the environment to suggest to me what I will find there. I was drawn to the human presence — maybe because I have a background in anthropology, maybe because I didn’t want to make more photographs of beautiful vistas that have been done. I was using composition to say something about the history of the composition of the land.”

The human presence in many of Halverson’s photographs is very slight and subtle. “Valley Oak, Cosumnes River Preserve, California 2000” requires a double take to notice the small wire fence within the rich green foliage on the banks of the misty river. The photograph has a ghostly quality, the time of day unclear in the overcast. There’s a stillness resting on the scene, and it appears to be undisturbed by human interference, the fence becoming a part of the earth.

In other photos, however, humanity is invasive and overpowering. In several photographs of the Hoover Dam, she displays the power of humans to influence the functions of nature. However, steering away from traditional vistas, “Hoover Dam, Arizona-Nevada Border, 1995” shows a shorter point of the wall at twilight. The movement of the lights streaking across the dam mirrors the shape of the rock in the background, showing people living and breathing alongside the landscape.

“Hoover Dam, Arizona Nevada Border,” Karen Halverson, 1995.

Halverson’s photographs are part of multiple series that follow paths through the West, such as the Colorado River or Mulholland Drive. The collection spans many years and many locations, and is aptly called “Survey.” “We wanted to show the breadth and depth of what she’s been looking at — the human impact on the landscape and vice versa,” gallery director Maja Orsic explained.

“The title of the show is a term that has a double meaning for us: a survey of her body of work, but also a geographical or geological survey in the scientific sense.”

Two of the pieces are from Halverson’s recent travels to Iceland, indicating an expansion of her ideas into new territory. “North of Hveravellir, Iceland, 2012” blends in seamlessly with the other scenes of desolation and open, airy natural views. A lone house in a flat land stretching to the horizon is a small hint of human inhabitants.
“It’s a place I’d always wanted to go,” Halverson stated, in reference to Iceland. “I knew it was a fairly desolate landscape, which appeals to me. I don’t feel as though I’ve finished with Iceland — I could easily go back.”

This survey of Halverson’s work is a fine example of her accomplishments throughout the decades in capturing the interplay between man and nature that has no dominating agenda except observing and recording, with hints that there are broader horizons to look forward to in her work.

(“Karen Halverson: Survey” remains on view through August 22 at the Robert Klein Gallery, 38 Newbury Street #402, Boston. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. For more information, call (617) 267-7997.)