Mona Kuhn is a Brazilian of German descent who landed in Los Angeles in 2005, where she became enamored of the regional light, particularly in nearby deserts. She spent three years shooting in the Mojave Desert, from Joshua Tree to the Navajo Indian reserve around Winslow, Arizona, to create a series titled Private. “During that time I was exploring the ambience, the mystic landscape, the vastness, the emptiness …” While in Joshua Tree, she happened upon a glass house — “a very special place in the middle of nowhere, rising from the sand” — to which she later returned after approaching the architect. The result was the series Acido Dorado, which exploited the subtle effects of glass and mirror on desert terrain and unclothed anatomy. Kuhn focuses on a solitary figure (her long-time model and collaborator Jacinta), all that is needed to embody the meditative power of the setting, and to reflect a universal shade of the human condition — solitude.

Kuhn has shot nudes “as a timeless element” from the earliest stages of her career, beginning with her transition from charcoal drawings into black-and-white details of the body.

“I was not yet comfortable photographing the full figure. As I became more comfortable and as I stepped back with the camera and started seeing more of the environment, I realized right away that color was very important … that color was all around and balancing color became very important for me, and it also became a source of inspiration. Every new series starts with me imagining a palette; and then I grow from there.”

Several kindred spirits haunt Kuhn’s work, including André Kertész, particularly in the mirror distortions of the figure she sometimes plays with; Georgia O’Keeffe, the godmother of all desert-inspired art and pioneer in distilling female sexuality; and the late Robert Graham, a Venice-based sculptor who in the 1960’s-1970s created exquisitely lifelike wax figures in miniature scale, often encased in transparent habitats. But Kuhn has traveled far enough into her own terrain so that these allusions are outweighed by her unique game of layered voyeurism and soft-edged empathy. Her projects, at their loftiest, embrace and conflate landscape, architecture, portraiture, memory, abstraction, and an ever-unfolding introspection.

Like many artists before her, Kuhn wrestles with the theme of mortality. Existential questions inflect every image she creates. “You have the figure reflected almost as a shadow, and behind the shadow you just see sand, rocks, and dust. In a way, it’s a metaphor for how we end up as dust.”  In the series Evidence (2007), she visited a naturist community in France and shot both young and old. “It’s amazing to see that a certain idyllic or utopian reality is possible … When we look back in time, the energy of the teenager, the beauty and restlessness, is something fleeting, that disappears.” The presence and evanescence of youth, of vitality, of life, continues to find its way into her images, the latest through the prism of a house in a desert where the local atmosphere dissolves concrete reality into a dreamlike realm of intersecting planes and liquid abstraction.

Acido Dorado opens at Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York on September 11, and continues through October 18. Private will be published by Steidl in November 2014 (www.steidl.de).

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More from the Photographer Spotlight Series:

MURRAY GARRETT

FORMENTO & FORMENTO

JO ANN CALLIS

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SERIES PRODUCER / MICHAEL KURCFELD