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JOHN PFAHL'S exhibition of photographs at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery carries the very appropriate title of "A Distanced Land."
At first hearing the title sounds romantic, a bit exotic, conjuring up images of a tropical isle or lost continent. The words suggest the lilt of old-style poetry.

The mind stumbles on that "-ed," however. This isn't a "distant land," after all, but a land to be held at arm's length, a place to be studied from afar by a detached and cold observer.

It is a near-perfect title for this retrospective by this well-known Buffalo artist. Pfahl does indeed set himself apart from his sumptuous and seemingly flawless landscapes. He appears the romantic, the besotted lover of the beautiful, only to finally undercut that impression by a number of brilliant and ingenious formal devices.

For Pfahl the natural world can no longer be perceived as the faith-inspiring phenomenon that our ancestors saw. In fact, he seems to be saying, nature cannot be apprehended at all unless filtered through a measuring mind.

With Pfahl the idea is the thing. The idea invades and subjugates nature. The camera, the supposed objective tool, is subverted, too. And so is traditional art and its chronic whine about truth and beauty.

In the mid- and late '70s, Pfahl's strategy was to troop into the land and literally leave his mark. Perhaps influenced by "earth art," he would stretch string across a barren plain, tape trees or otherwise personally prepare his landscape. For instance, in "Moonrise Over Pan Pie," an ordinary pie pan inserted into the landscape catches light and makes a man-made duplicate of the moon above. The photograph has a Wordsworthian fervor to it, giving the introduction of the humble pan a comic pathos.

In these earlier works Pfahl plays the studious conceptual artist. He places oranges in a driveway and creates polka dots on the surface of his photo. He forms a grid on a picture of red setters sitting in a field by artful arrangements of yarn arranged in the grass.

With the series "Picture Windows" (1978-81) he finds a less overt way of abstracting landscape. Here he shoots his scenes from inside motels and restaurants, framing them in the geometry of windows. By his simple device nature is broken up into compartments, making it seem discontinuous and fragmented. After a while the windows seem obedient servants to the artist's thinking process. For example, a romantic image of a barn is given the proper geometric severity by being viewed through two horizontally placed rectangles. Or a random view of a parking lot is made formal and neat by framing it in a bulb-edged restaurant window.

By using the simple device of the window he quietly and unobtrusively strips away implications of the picturesque and grandeur, all the while commenting wittily on the idea of a picture as a "window on the world."

By 1981 Pfahl had shifted his tactics. He scored his points by placing conflicting subject matter within the same continuous scene. "Power Places" shows nuclear facilities or factories embedded in stunning natural vistas. Everything is controlled down to the tiniest turn of light; a happy harmony of old seems to prevail. The conflicts are obvious enough, though. Cooling towers embrace glorious rays of an evening sun. And smokestacks appear as austerely beautiful as the rock formations of the mesa around them.

Pfahl keeps this argument between nature and industry as low-key as possible. He points out -- sometimes a bit too coyly -- this uncomfortable meeting without taking a propagandistic stand. (In fact, he is so successful that both environmentalist and nuclear power advocates have used his work to further their causes.)

Pfahl manages to avoid expressing his personal anxiety about the decline of nature, though it is obviously there. Still, his choices of subject matter -- especially in photography, the supposed objective art -- are in themselves political and cultural statements.

It's apparent in the series "Arcadia Revisited" (1985-87). In seemingly nostalgic images he quietly and thoroughly dismantles the 19th century concept of deified nature. To do this he imitates the Hudson River School painters, zeroing in on Amos W. Sangster, a Buffalo artist who did a series of etchings along the Niagara River. Typically, Pfahl turns this used-up aesthetic back onto itself. Technically astounding throughout, he miraculously pulls out botanical details from shadowy landscapes. He re-creates specific compositions, capturing the "transcendental" light and "deified" mood of the originals. His remake of Frederick Church's painting "Niagara" plays marvelously between Church's grandiose realism and photography's leveling neutrality.

Behind all these altered and appropriated images may be a kind of intellectual joke. No doubt such a joke is -- to use Pfahl's word -- distanced almost to the point of non-existence. But not quite. Pfahl wittily asks where does nature exist, and then shows it can exist only in the shaping and measuring mind of the artist.

That Pfahl's project is finally driven by a faith in the redemptive value of human logic is most apparent in his latest series, "Smoke." In this spellbinding series, the most elusive of phenomena is given high classical order. The murky subject -- in each case factory smoke bellows from a single stack at the base of the picture -- is given startling clarity. The effect is beguiling. It is as though Seurat and Ad Reinhardt came back from the dead and formed an artistic team. In "Bethlehem #41" the black smoke spreads to the top of the big square format, turning it into a shiny black and utterly abstract surface.

Pfahl's brand of elegant logic is not merely a substitute for lost nature; it also aspires to be the master of what remains. Pfahl assaults both the dead aesthetics of old art and technology itself -- even that of the camera. He implies there is no proper and natural place for the artist facing the external world and suggests that visual observation itself may be defunct. Behind these gleaming surfaces and lush images is a bleaker message than meets the eye.

The exhibition, organized by gallery curator Cheryl Brutvan, continues on view through Jan. 6. Following its Buffalo showing the exhibition will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

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