Los Angeles Times reviews Greetings from the Salton Sea at Michael Dawson Gallery

19 Aug Los Angeles Times reviews Greetings from the Salton Sea at Michael Dawson Gallery

The briny beauty of the Salton Sea

By Leah Ollman

Entire chapters of the weird and troubling story of the Salton Sea unfurl from each of the photographs in Kim Stringfellow’s thought-provoking show at Michael Dawson Gallery. The images are unsentimental, quiet and informative. At once they riff on the melancholic appeal of ruins while posing questions about a future course – ecological, commercial and otherwise.

The Salton Sea is California’s Pompeii, a mythic and wondrous disaster. Historians trace its beginnings back to a “creation flood” in 1905, an accident of nature and culture alike, which humans aggressively exploited, determined to make a profit. Entrepreneurship and opportunism form the bones of the story, ecological adaptation its flesh and soul.

Stringfellow has been trekking to the area from her home in San Diego since 1995, photographing, collecting artifacts and researching. The 10 pictures in the Dawson show appear, among others, in her new book, “Greetings From the Salton Sea: Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape, 1905-2005.” In this concise, compelling account of a fallen paradise, Stringfellow describes the Salton Sea as “a study of contrasts, a compendium of the unexpected and ephemeral.”

The photograph “Abandoned Trailer” makes the point stunningly. Its subject – an oxidized, encrusted metal shell – sits sunken in a broad pool of liquid rust, the water’s edges salty and crystalline. Green buzzes against orange, the sky’s sharp, clean blue putting a cap on the friction. The “sublime and surreal beauty” that captivated Stringfellow has pungent origins: brine and bacteria in the water, industrial and agricultural runoff that have made the sea an ecological mutant, littered with corroded debris.

Everything that flows into the sea stays in the sea, becoming concentrated and potentially toxic. The extreme salinity has killed off most of the fish population. Birds feeding on the rotting fish carcasses spread botulism among the avian population, which includes numerous threatened and endangered species that make their primary home there.

Tourists to the area, once plentiful, have naturally become scarce as well. A photograph of the desolate and dry Salton City golf course, once a destination for celebrities, looks like a scene of war reportage from Iraq.

An image of an abandoned residence is similarly redolent of violent decline. Bare mattresses are stacked askew in the trashed bedroom. Amid the grit on the floor are clumps of pigeon feathers, like the severed wings of the whole enterprise of turning the area into agricultural heartland, vacation oasis and resort community.

The military has had a hand in the Salton Sea pot as well. A bombing range was established there, as well as several weapon-testing sites. One of Stringfellow’s pictures shows a squat concrete building straddled by a pyramid of metal scaffolding. It’s called “Whirl Tower” and could almost pass for an abandoned carnival ride – but in fact it was erected by the military to test parachutes, without having to drop them from planes.

The sole romantic landscape in the group portrays a narrow river receding in honeyed afternoon light. In yet another example of the area’s freakish beauty, what looks incongruously like chunks of ice floating downstream are actually mounds of white foam. The river, which feeds into the Salton Sea, flows north through Mexicali, where it picks up under-treated sewage, industrial waste and phosphate detergents that generate that billowing foam.

Fishery, wildlife refuge, film set – these too have been functions of the Salton Sea area. It was rumored that a Spanish galleon lay under its waters. One developer imported sea lions and plopped them into the sea for effect.

The richness of the sea’s century-long history is indisputable. What the place will become in the future, though, remains to be seen.

Stringfellow does a persuasive job of articulating the area’s blight in her photographs. In her text, she also addresses the region’s promise, if restoration efforts succeed.

In the meantime, the Salton Sea remains eerily seductive for photographers.

Publications by a few other artists drawn in by the site’s complex oddity are set out at the gallery along with related books and documents. Stringfellow’s images, taken alone, may be understated, but seen in numbers and backed by her crisply elucidating text, they make for quite a saga.

-Leah Ollman

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