David Maisel: The Heart of the Art

From the Library of Dust, by David Maisel

From the Library of Dust, by David Maisel


Close observers of the Mental Health Association of Portland know our strategy of using art to leverage political and policy change. No artist has had a greater effect on Oregon’s mental health policy than our friend David Maisel.

When David contacted us in 2003 to get access to the Oregon State Hospital he was not conceiving of political action and did not know of our interests in tearing down the Oregon State Hospital. Although he’s a politically aware person – his art floats above politics; it’s the stuff of ghosts and memory, not access and negotiation.

But to get access to the long impregnable Oregon State Hospital, David needed a combination of charm, talent, impertinence and confidence. With those tools he approached former superintendent Marvin Fickel and former associate superintendent Maynard Hammer who gave David full access for several days to the old Kirkbride J Building, and the abandoned hospital crematorium. This was an important first – no artist had approached the hospital since Milos Forman made One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, and Mary Ellen Mark made photos of Ward 81 in 1978.

From these two separate locations David made two separate sets of photographs, contained in one collection – Library of Dust. One series of photos captures the derelict hospital, haunted and forgotten – an easy metaphor for patients past and present. The second series showed copper canisters holding the ash remains of over 3,500 hospital patients.

The photographs showed all over the world to intellectuals and media mavens and the cognoscenti who collect Maisel’s enormous intimidating prints and correspond to his message of distance and vision and decay. Very po-mo; very downtown.

David Maisel: “On my first visit to the hospital, I am escorted to a decaying outbuilding, where a dusty room lined with simple pine shelves is lined three-deep with thousands of copper canisters. Prisoners from the local penitentiary are brought in to clean the adjacent hallway, crematorium, and autopsy room. A young male prisoner in a blue uniform, with his feet planted firmly outside the doorway, leans his upper body into the room, scans the cremated remains, and whispers in a low tone, “The library of dust.” The title and thematic structure of the project result from this encounter.”

David shows his most recent photograph series in the New York Times today, The Heart of the Art.

The Heart of the Art – by David Maisel

Published in the New York Times, October 1, 2011

During a residency at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles several years ago, I began to think about images that were created in the course of art preservation, where the realms of visual art and scientific research overlap. While taking photographs at the conservation department of the J. Paul Getty Museum, I became captivated by X-rays of art objects from the museum’s permanent collections. These ghostly images seemed to surpass the potency of the original objects of art. They were like transmissions from the distant past, conveying messages across time, and connecting the contemporary viewer to the art impulse at the core of these ancient works.

My project’s title, “History’s Shadow,” refers both to the literal images that the X-rays create as they are re-photographed, and to the metaphorical content informed by the past from which these objects derive.

Rendering three dimensions into two is at the heart of the photographic process. With the X-ray, this sense is compounded, since it maps both the inner and outer surfaces of its subject. The X-rays I photographed — both at the Getty museum and then at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco — were elements of previously existing archives made for the purpose of art conservation. Each was laid on a light box in a darkened room; the emanations of light were transmitted by long exposures onto color film, which was subsequently scanned to digital files that I work on using software to adjust the tonal range and to make certain that as much detail as possible is legible. I then adjust the scans to bring out colors latent in the original film and scans. Those colors intentionally reference cyanotypes, albumen prints and other 19th-century processes.