The current exhibit in the back gallery at the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon is David Maisel’s project, Library of Dust. It runs from October 2 to November 2. Library of Dust is Maisel’s series of color photographs of corroded copper canisters. Each one is placed on a black background and while the copper is sometimes polished to a soft glow, in other images the copper is dull and tired looking, dented and bent out of shape. The colors of corrosion vary from brilliant cerulean blue to deep magenta. In some images the corrosion builds out from the surface of the copper and spills down the metal sides, creating thick layers of mineral deposits, like what you might find in a limestone cave, but made of white, green, and blue accretions.
Occasionally, the canisters are laid on their sides, but most are upright and positioned in the center of the frame, much like the Edward Weston’s Nautilus Shell (1927) or, more specifically, one of Irving Penn’s Cigarette or Street Materials photographs from the 1970s. Visually, Maisel’s images share a lot in common with Penn’s images, but Penn’s were shot on a white background and presented as platinum prints. Another thing that Maisel and Penn share is the scale of the exhibited work—both are big. Penn’s were roughly 4 x 5 feet in size and Maisel’s are perhaps a bit bigger than that—intimate, small-scale objects presented larger than life. They invite the viewer to be drawn in and they seduce the viewer with sensual, visual delights. But whereas Penn’s images showed us the discarded, used-up objects of people, Maisel’s images are of discarded, used-up people. Literally.
The copper canisters contained the cremated remains of people. They were patients at the Oregon State Hospital, whose bodies remained unclaimed after their deaths. The earliest canisters date from the 1880s and the latest from the 1970s. There are more than 3500 of them at the hospital. When Maisel photographed them, they were all placed in a small room with simple pine shelves, stacked three deep in rows, looking like a library, hence the name of the exhibit. In an effort to conserve them, since that time, they have been placed in black plastic bags on new shelves in a room next to the old one.
Standing in the gallery surrounded by Maisel’s photographs is like standing in a mausoleum. And in many ways, this is exactly what is happening. But the first response is one of wonder at the beauty of the objects themselves. The colors are deliciously rich. The patterns of the corrosion are delicate, nearly ephemeral, like they would fall apart if you touched them and blow away with the wind. At other times, the corrosion seems like the sediments of the ages—solid and geologic—or like aerial photographs of the borders between earth and sea. The black of the background is the black of outer space—infinite and eternal. It separates and propels the canisters toward the viewer. But the scale and presence of the images belie the reality of the objects themselves, the canisters become as fragile as the lives they contain. All of these are people who left this world unwanted and unclaimed. Their lives and their bodies are now packed into these containers. This is all that remains of them. The sadness of that truth is mixed with the stunningly bittersweet testimonial of Maisel’s images. In a way, Maisel offers these people another chance of recognition—a way for them to be seen and not forgotten. The images are Maisel’s own memorial to the patients of the Oregon State Hospital. Like a lot of good art, Maisel’s Library of Dust works on a variety of levels. Visually beautiful and emotionally devastating. It pulls you in and repels you at the same time. It is both grotesque and sublime. And because of this, the Library of Dust is unforgettable.