Sam Contis (b. 1982) uses photography and archival research to explore the relationship of bodies and landscape and the shifting nature of gender identity and expression. The body of work in this exhibition was made at Deep Springs College, one of the country’s last all-male institutions of higher learning, located in a remote valley on the California–Nevada border. The Bay Area–based artist’s images call to mind a long history of photography in the intermountain West, from Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins to Ansel Adams and Richard Misrach.
Deep Springs College was founded in 1917 by the engineer, industrialist, and educational visionary Lucien Lucius Nunn. Inspired in part by the pedagogical theories of John Dewey, Nunn sought to create a school combining Socratic learning, self-governance, and manual labor as well as almost complete isolation from society. Although practical education was to some degree the underlying premise of the curriculum, Deep Springs is profoundly idiosyncratic, placing its inhabitants in a world very much unlike the reality they will enter upon graduation. The college combines a working cattle ranch and farm, classrooms and coursework, and the opportunity to engage in what is essentially a two-year laboratory of the self: Deep Springs students enjoy a rare freedom to explore nuanced expressions of gender.
Contis’s photographs capture the strange beauty of the high desert in macro- and microscopic views. The indistinguishability of earth and body and the sensual echoes of human and animal give her works an Ovidian sense of imminent metamorphoses. Contributing to this sensation of superabundant possibility is the mythic potency of the American West. For generations, the West has symbolized an ideal of freedom and liberation from society even as it has defined a certain rough and even violent ideal of masculine identity. Coursing through Contis’s photographs is a powerful countercurrent of softness, gentleness, and fertility. Against the backdrop of ageless mountain ranges, the historically constructed categories of gender seem to melt away like a desert mirage.
In addition to creating singular images, Contis is concerned with the syntactic relationships among works in a series. She arranges her works in the gallery in ways that draw out formal echoes and poetic resonances. In this presentation she has included a number of photographs borrowed from the Deep Springs archive, including images made by some of the first students at the college nearly a hundred years ago.