Exodus: Between Promise and Fulfilment At Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge, until 3 August
Last year, the sixth-century Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, a fortress surrounding a basilica, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with many hectares of its mountainous landscape. The designation was welcomed in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram as a means of controlling the impact of tourism in the area, in danger of turning this remote holy place into a litterstrewn travesty of its former self.
Back in 1869, when the intrusive procession of coaches was unimaginable, St Catherine's was on the route of a British Ordnance Survey team, dispatched to photograph the Sinai Peninsula. In 'Exodus' at Kettle's Yard, a generous selection of images from their journey is on show; Sergeant James McDonald of the Royal Engineers wielded the cumbersome camera. The complex of St Catherine's is seen from above in perspective, two tiny figures from the British party giving the cliff-like walls a formidable air. A second image looks straight at the north face of the monastery, where big blocks of ashlar are topped by coursed rubblestone to make an almost unbroken masonry expanse.
The survey team's remit was the Biblical territory of Moses' search for the Promised Land, but whatever resonance that gave their photographs for a contemporary viewer (Darwin's The Origin of Species had been published 10 years earlier), they now seem to have much in common with the work of such photographers as Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan, who documented the landscape of the American West at around the same time. Though McDonald records the man-made - stelae and their inscriptions, chapels and tombs, St Catherine's - what his images communicate most vividly is a similarly wild, astonishing landscape, with intricate rock formations, mountains that dwarf the survey party's tents, and views towards the haze of the desert horizon.
These photographs, though, and the sense of time past that is inevitable with fading albumen prints, only account for half of the Kettle's Yard show. The surprising complement are a number of recent, mostly abstract works selected by artist David Austen. They have not been made directly in response to McDonald's survey images but supposedly have some affinity with them - 'a fitalking togetherfl across space and time that cannot be reduced to a thematic or theoretical idiom, ' says the catalogue, rather grandly.
Those affinities are mostly either trite or vague. To juxtapose photographs of stelae with one of John McCracken's gleaming and immaculate objects (made of fibreglass, resin and plywood), propped plank-like against the wall, is an example of the former.
More fruitful, perhaps, is the equation between the oceanic and cosmic imagery of Vija Celmins and some of McDonald's photographs, each putting a frame around seemingly infinite space.
But it is maybe best to disregard the portentous subtitle of the exhibition, which the catalogue tries to justify with quotes from James Joyce, Paul Celan and others, and a statement that 'these artists were brought together because they reconceptualise McDonald's depictions of a fluctuating site of representation'; and instead of contriving 'affinities', treat 'Exodus' as two parallel but interwoven shows.
In which case, the second component is as absorbing as the first and, through the varied work of its handful of practitioners, puts present-day abstraction in a very positive light. Helmut Federle proves that gold leaf, that treacherous substance for artists, so liable to give work a false kitschy glamour, can nonetheless be effective - his large untitled black-on-gold screen print recalls Leonardo's famous 'stain on the wall', in which viewers readily find images of their own. Very different in nature, Ian Davenport's black gloss square more literally reflects its viewers, while - different again - John Zurier's Oblaka 31 fuses colour, light and atmosphere in a casual, winning way.