Mighty Colorado

The Los Angeles Times

May 9, 1996

Karen Halverson's supersaturated color photographs at Paul Kopeikin Gallery update the grand, panoramic pageantry of the American landscape by unsentimentally depicting awesome mountains, valleys and plains spanned by the Colorado River. Cutting a 1700-mile course through six states and two countries, this vital waterway is punctuated by six major dams (including the Hoover), dozens of reservoirs and several gigantic man-made lakes, like Powell and Mead. It's also the site of myriad water sports, parks, promenades, and picnic areas. Halverson's bold 2½ x 3½ foot pictures eschew the simple "nature-is-good, civilization-is-bad" moralism of much documentary photography. For every fertile valley filled with amber waves of grain, the peripatetic photographer captures on film, she includes a bevy of awkwardly bobbing houseboats. Each towering canyon wall is likewise balanced against an endless string of electric towers. Most majestic vistas are juxtaposed with rows of plastic pool furniture, distant oil wells, metal umbrellas or transplanted palm trees.

Lush and realistic, Halverson's best prints do not oppose nature and culture. Instead, they suggest that every individual is simultaneously dwarfed by the natural environment’s unfathomable vastness and by the massive, mind-boggling feats of post-industrial engineering that crosses this terrain.

A sense of humor softens the absurdity evinced by Halverson's photos, especially the one in which a scrappy golf course lies behind a synthetic fence at the edge of a cliff that drops precipitously to a river below. Farther in the background, radio towers, an electricity generating plant, a canyon-spanning bridge and a dam are all set in a dazzling landscape of purple mountains, crystalline rivers, and shimmering lakes.

In this picture, nothing is more natural than anything else. Rejecting the still prevalent 19th century idea that people don't belong in the landscape, Halverson's art shows the world as it is: a terrifying and impersonal vastness in which life as we know it hangs in the balance.