Stopover in a Quiet Town

Reviewed by Jen Hutton 

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I cannot resist being seduced by the desert of the American southwest. The barren landscape is recast as an uninterrupted vista; the extreme climate slicks its relics with charming patinas. For all the sameness, the desert pockets scattered utopias, many abandoned. The edge of the world, a place to disappear, more free than civilized.

 

Though also a small artist book, Scott Lyne’s Stopover in a Quiet Town is a mystery. Twenty tightly-cropped photographs of paper targets used for shooting practice, some scuffed up, others have dirt ground into them, another torn clean in half. Most of the targets are full-color; almost all of them are perforated with holes. I am no ballistics expert, but given their size and scatter pattern, the holes seem like the marks of a weapon of a much higher calibre than your average BB gun.

 

In the book’s four movements—short sections prefaced by photographs of the numbers one through four, also elements of said targets—Lyne’s photographs are studies of these little constellations poking through the paper. Circles are a recurring motif throughout the book, not only in those violent punches but also a red circle, appearing twice, centered on a white ground like the Japanese flag. Elsewhere we’re staring down the limitless vacuum of a gun barrel, or the glassy ring of a gun scope staring back. The figures in these targets, an assembly of lingering, cringing stock characters, confront us too: the “terrorist” squinting under the drape of a red-and-white keffiyeh, the unflinching gaze of a balaclava-wearing criminal, or the grim expression of a desperate man, holding a damsel hostage.

 

The villainous archetypes perpetuated by the target makers appall, yet I’m not surprised. (A cursory look online reveals that similar targets are still available for purchase.) I’m hardly fazed by the record of gunfire either, as the desert seems to encourage a level of recklessness rarely found elsewhere. The first time I visited the desert, specifically to see Michael Heizer’s Double Negative near Overton, Nevada, I was greeted at the site by a party of locals sitting on the edge of the earthwork in lawn chairs, nursing beers and unloading a few slugs into the air from a handgun. They struck me then as totally wrong and yet totally right. I briefly desired to shoot a few rounds into the air. It’s as if guns—along with booze, and maybe drugs —are necessary desert props. The desert shouldn’t otherwise be experienced.

 

What town Lyne refers to in the title of his book remains unknown. The website of Gravity and Trajectory—a newish press run by two recent UCSD MFA grads, Christopher Kardambikis and Louis M. Schmidt—doesn’t make it public. Wherever they were found, given the tendencies of the desert to hasten the demise of settlements into ghost towns, it would not be wrong to suspect these images came from a location that had been quiet for some time. Yet they seem very aloof, or detached from any place. In these images, the space beyond the holes register as black, and their tight cropping and uniform lighting suggest the targets were removed and digitally scanned rather than photographed in situ. The last image, a section of a wooden piece of plywood punctured through with many holes, seems to be the only image that conveys the quietude of some abandoned site.

 

A quick online search of the title pulls up an old episode from the early years of The Twilight Zone, where a couple wake up after a late-night bender in a unfamiliar house. What’s fascinating about the episode’s long, drawn-out lead-up to the “reveal” (too ridiculous to divulge here,) is the couple’s slow unraveling of that constructed space: the false fronted cupboards, the plastic food in the fridge, the fake squirrel in the absent neighbor’s tree. This thin veneer of reality is also what holds together the site in Lyne’s unnamed town. After Jean Baudrillard’s famous dictum, “the desert of the real,” these paper targets are projections onto the desert landscape, foils for warfare in practice. But we are not deceived by them: their pock-marked surfaces, bullet holes between each Ben-Day dot, are simulacra of life, pointed pantomime for an improvised theater of war games.

 

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Scott Lyne, Stopover in a Quiet Town, (Gravity and Trajectory, 2011)
Images: Cover and interior from Stopover in a Quiet Town

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