REVIEW San Francisco photographer David Maisel is best known for vast, expansive images. Critic Vince Aletti deemed his aerial views of Los Angeles freeways "absolutely post-apocalyptic." With "Library of Dust," Maisel shifts from the macrocosmic to the nearly microscopic. But his trademark clarity and intensity turns the viewer's mind into an infinite focus-puller regarding notions of existence and human relationships to the universe. The titular library is a room in the Oregon State Hospital the site of Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest where copper canisters in various stages of corrosion contain the ashes (or in hospital parlance, "cremains") of forsaken mental patients.
The many-layered morbidity of Maisel's subject matter is counterbalanced by the shocking beauty of the decaying canisters, which, in his words and in his large-scale images, illuminated by filtered window light spill forth "cadmium, cobalt, cerulean, azurite, oxblood, chrome yellow, ocher, sage, and emerald." Though one essay in the new Maisel monograph Library of Dust (Chronicle Books, $80) begins with Roland Barthes proclaiming that a photographic image "produces Death while trying to preserve life," these photos are an inverse of that popular theorem. (In fact, since Maisel took the photos in 2005, the canisters have been placed inside black plastic boxes and clear plastic bags, generating condensation he's compared to "breath on a window.") "Library of Dust" intersects potently and poetically with historical studies of madness and death, not to mention a recent mini-wave of books and films on the subject of dust.
In a far corner of Haines Gallery, Zhan Wang's "Gold Mountain" presents a different heavy perspective on metal, arranging stainless steel rocks next to "real" ones. While Zhan invokes the California Gold Rush, it's hard not to think of this quiet, near-hidden installation's relationship to the current onslaught of Chinese art in the Bay Area or to think of the people and landscapes around Three Gorges Dam.
DAVID MAISEL: LIBRARY OF DUST and ZHAN WANG: GOLD MOUNTAIN Through Oct. 4. Tues.Fri., 10:30 a.m.5:30 p.m.; Sat., 10:30 a.m.5 p.m. Haines Gallery, 49 Geary, suite 540, SF. (415) 397-8114. www.hainesgallery.com