Arts Desk

Reviewed: Maxwell MacKenzie at the American Institute of Architects

A little more than two years ago, I lamented that the most recent exhibit by D.C.-based architectural and landscape photographer Maxwell MacKenzie wasn’t all that different from his last, breaking a pattern of consistent visual and thematic reinvention over the previous decade. I can now report that MacKenzie’s new exhibition does indeed aim for new frontiers, mostly successfully.

“Helter-Shelter”—as it’s (perhaps too whimsically) titled— is “an exploration into the organization of temporary communities.” MacKenzie uses his signature ultralight to great effect in documenting the Burning Man festival from the air (top), showing how a seemingly anarchic event is actually carefully organized into a series of arcs comprised of tents, domes, and RVs.

The images MacKenzie made from the ground aren’t quite so dramatic, but many are impressive nonetheless, from colorful aggregations of riverside boathouses (below) and ice-fishing cabins to smatterings of RVs in a desert. In one smart pairing, MacKenzie places an image of a lovely row of homes lining a spit in the middle of a deep blue lake directly across from a photograph of a line of mobile homes parked in a bright green valley—a sly comment on economic differences. As he has in the past, MacKenzie arranges some of his images into matrices to draw out visual contrasts; in “Helter-Shelter,” he spotlights a series of cheerily decorated mobile homes in a sunny locale.

But MacKenzie’s most striking works take full advantage of their enormous scale—a wide-screen, ground-level view of Burning Man with a freeze-frame complexity that suggests the finest work of Andreas Gursky and Edward Burtynsky, and a Florida RV park nocturne that suggests the enigmatic works of Gregory Crewdson. Unlike MacKenzie’s previous deep dives into decaying barns and tobacco farms, “Helter Shelter” includes too few works to be the final word on a topic as broad as the architecture of “temporary communities.” But we all benefit whenever MacKenzie turns over a new leaf.

Through January 2013 at the AIA Headquarters Gallery, 1735 New York Ave. NW.


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