Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Southwest Heir Lines

By Ray Pride

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  We walk or drive through Now. The eye moves forward in present tense. The brain has to decipher messages, construct history: eras of architecture, epochs of design, moments of merchandising. In the marvelous, haunting "Open Range and Parking Lots," Virgil Hancock snaps the ruins of post-World War II commerce in dying small towns of the rural Southwest. His eye is unsparing. The colors sear.

There is a full-page tableau, rich with dawn light across a sand-colored span of flat commercial architecture under an unbroken blue sky. There is a shadow of past civilization across the horizontal surface of the derelict Sunbelt warehouse: the sooty outlines of now-gone letters: Kmart. A few pages on, the ruins of a Texaco station with bold red letters: CAFE. There is fugitive charm in its dilapidation, yet it is of the same pollution of horizon and sky, a lonely campfire snuffed, more ashes in the hinterland.

In his accompanying "New Ruins, Old Boneyards: The Lost Soul of the Southwest," Gregory McNamee's writes of the "Californication" of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. He rues the developer's "megapolitan" dream in a land where a local adage holds that "in the desert, water can be made to flow uphill—but only toward money." Hancock essays a "terrible beauty," McNamee observes, not from awe, but in horror at the mix of vitality and madness. McNamee writes of the time that produced the remnants in Hancock's photographs as "an age... short on dignity but long on manic vitality." That vitality is typified on the facing page by a stand of trees that bestrides a verge of green, littered with signs to the horizon, the prices of Camel Filters and Doral and Marlboro by the carton, and lastly, "Leaving White Mountain Apache Reservation."

What was rural turns suburban. What held kitsch charm erodes, rusts, becomes corroded by urban-style spray-paint graffiti. A viewer might feel nostalgia for an earlier crap culture. But the hiccoughs of color bely the nature of the desert: to bleach, to blanch, to reduce to dust. The surreality is shown as commonplace. The contrasts between dream and reality are harrowing. Hancock listens for the death rattle amid the ruins of a culture of jumbling the symbols of 150 years, seventy years, a decade or so ago. McNamee writes, "Our remains will bear a corporate logo."

"Open Range and Parking Lots"
photographs by Virgil Hancock III; essay by Gregory McNamee
University of New Mexico Press, $24.95

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