Chicago Sun-Times
February 1, 1981

Roger Vail
excels in
capturing
enchanted
visions
  Roger Vail has a vision of the world reborn, made innocent again. At his best Vail adds a new chapter to a romantic style we had thought exhausted. A view of the night sky over Sacramento, including airplanes taking off and stars revolving, by Roger Vail, is part of his show at Douglas Kenyon Gallery through Feb. 28.

Photography / David Elliott

IN ROGER VAIL'S photography the light is triumphal--pure, pearly beams carried in a silver chalice from some white dwarf star, then poured over objects until they hum and click with radiance. Don't tell me that he simply takes a view camera and makes long exposures, usually at night. At this level, art is a magic surpassing technique.

As the show at Douglas Kenyon Gallery (to Feb. 28) makes very clear, Vail has a vision of the world reborn, made innocent again. At his best Vail adds a new chapter to a romantic style we had thought exhausted: the "white city" of architects like Richard Neutra and Oscar Niemeyer, Van Nest Polglase's snowy sets for the Astaire-Rogers films, and the stripped but not sterile machine paintings of Carl Grossberg and Charles Sheeler.

Whether devoted to play (carnival rides spinning in a dervish looping of white light) or work (refineries with pipes and tanks lit by starbursts of electricity), Vail's world is enchanted: a nocturne of ink-and-ivory. Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, already celebrated in movies and countless postcards, becomes in his sight a platform of heaven - a couple stands bathed in light next to the dome, while beyond them L.A. spreads in a carpet of diamonds, and an airplane leaves a beaded trail of points in the sky.

He photographs the fountain in Chicago's First National Plaza, and it becomes a fluorescent explosion, like an overture to the mother ship in "Close Encounters." On his son's day of birth, Vail shows the Sacramento River turned into a channel of silver silk by moonlight, while fireworks crown distant trees; and the moon (in an exposure of three hours) rises in a straight beam like a heavenly baseball bat. Though his subjects often shine with serenity, you sense a vast energy --the world is young again.

VAIL IS NOT ONLY a night mystic. His series of ocean pier views, with ghost-mist crouching on water and eery figures sunken in the shadows of huge wet columns, are deservedly famous. And his shots of horses, grazing in corrals under flossy trees, are a sylvan sandwiching of George Stubbs and John Constable -- a daydream of the tamed West. (It's probably what Ronald Reagan would like America to be.)

A graduate of the School of the Art Institute, where-he was much inspired by the great curator Hugh Edwards, Vail now lives in California. He is among the new generation which, though learning much from older perfectionists, has taken art where it must go: down personal roads. Call it idealism, even pictorialism of a kind, but blindness is the only excuse for finding no pleasure in it.

 

return to Night Images page