March 2003

Trespassing in Art's Name

Think of Katherine Westerhout as the East Bay's hometown B&E artist. A lifelong Oakland resident and recently winner of the 2002 Berkeley Art Center Members Showcase, Westerhout has made her artistic career out of photographing abandoned spaces, many of which she breaks into and enters just to take pictures. This show focuses on East Bay locations in particular, including Oakland's old Montgomery Ward building and the beautiful, decaying Fox Theatre.

What all of Westerhout's images have in common is a great vastness, showing cavernous, empty spaces that are devoid of all human presence. The prints themselves are huge, as well; those dating from 2001 and earlier are Iris prints generated at Urban Digital Color in San Francisco, and the ones from 2002 and later were developed at Magnolia Editions in Oakland using a brand-new inkjet technology. Not only does the new inkjet process allow for a huge expansion in color capability and print surface, but it also allows Westerhout to print her images directly onto canvas, making it unnecessary to put a pane of glass between the photographic paper and the viewer. The result is total IMAX-style immersion in each picture.

The appeal of a decrepit, abandoned warehouse might not be immediately obvious to everyone, but Westerhout finds beauty everywhere she turns. The sun shining through broken windows casts fascinating light patterns on the walls, and pools of water on the floor create incredible reflections. She uses the water effect again and again in her photography, capitalizing on its power to create architectural symmetry and to double the perceived volume of a room. The illusion is so perfect in some images that it's even hard to tell where the real space ends and the reflected space begins. We imagine Westerhout wading over to an ideal spot and then waiting patiently for the last tiny ripple to disappear before taking her picture in order to preserve the illusion of never having been there at all.

She uses the term "landscape of reflections" to describe her works, meaning it in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. To some extent she treats these interiors in the same manner that a ghost-town photographer would treat an abandoned mining town, consciously heightening the romance of her subject by effacing all evidence of human presence, including her own. But what makes her pictures more compelling than any old photo of Bodie is their ambience of quiet, almost religious reverence -- conveying the sense of being inside a church, rather than some warehouse covered in rust and peeling paint. She manages it through a masterful and incredibly consistent approach to framing architecture and light, expertly transforming buildings as mundane and decrepit as the Montgomery Ward building into hallowed ground. They become places for introspection and solitude where mysterious, powerful forces are palpable.

Her images might seem at first like they're all about the products of human effort -- concrete, pipes, glass, and plastic -- and intended as some kind of funerary ode to the passing of these supposedly durable materials. But the longer you look, the less mournful the pictures seem, and the more they actually appear to celebrate the slow, gradual triumph of nature over everything in its path. The buildings haven't quite reverted back to their primal state, but many of them are at least halfway there, and Westerhout drives the point home with an audio track that accompanies "Wards VI." Clamp on the headphones and you're suddenly lost in the scene: gray concrete pillars rising majestically through the vast space, heavy rain falling outside, and the much closer plop-plop-plop sound of water dripping into the pool at our feet, slowly eroding the cement and making way for the eventual takeover of plant life.

Further distinguishing Westerhout's particular brand of architectural photography -- separating it even from work as closely allied as that of San Francisco's Henrik Kam, who trespasses through Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard to photograph deserted building interiors -- is her knack for disorienting the viewer. Even when we have the benefit of two different viewpoints, as in the case of her dual photos of the Fox Theater, it's usually quite difficult to get a feel for where we're supposed to be standing, or what the space would look and feel like if we were actually inside it. Westerhout's precise framing of each scene provides just enough visual information to create the maximum dramatic effect, but not a shred more. Maybe she sees it as a way to enhance our sense of awe by refusing to let us take an imaginary "foothold" in a specific spot.

The vague titles ("Sears III," "Richmond I," "Burial Ground I," etc.) remove yet another level of reality from her works by withholding specific information about the buildings' locations. It's an effective device, although much the appeal of these photos is the fantasy of replicating Westerhout's act of trespassing, which is totally thwarted by her refusal to disclose the buildings' addresses or the details of her entry. For her own legal sake, and that of her viewers, it's probably just as well that she doesn't, but it would still be nice to have a map or some anecdotes -- anything at all that would provide a little vicarious breaking-and-entering thrill.

Westerhout does, however, break her own rules on two occasions in this show. In one case it's plainly announced: a print entitled "Self-Portrait," showing the artist and her camera reflected in a giant mirror. She looks like a somber and respectable gray-haired woman in jeans and a black jacket -- more like someone's mom than some fantasy cat-burglar -- but there's still an element of mystery and romance there. The mirror's decorative frame hints that maybe she took this on her trip through the Fox Theatre, and it's confirmed by the second appearance of the artist in another Fox picture, this time just as a shadow projected onto the stage. The incredible and ornate interior decor might keep you from even noticing her at first, but there she is, and suddenly Westerhout's whole enterprise takes on a political valence it didn't have before.

By trespassing through these formerly corporate spaces and re-presenting them in her particular way, Westerhout reclaims them for private use. They become empty stages onto which we can project our own religious ideas, our Howard Carter tomb-raider fantasies, or even our simple but desperate need for a moment of solitude.

© 2020 Katherine Westerhout. All rights reserved.