PST, A to Z: ‘Seismic Shift’ at California Museum of Photography
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Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
Southern California can’t seem to get enough of “New Topographics.” The photography movement, whose practitioners prized cool, detached neutrality, was first defined in an influential 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.
In 2009, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art restaged that show almost in its entirety, and earlier this year, Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts organized “Street Sight,” exploring how SoCal photographers applied the style to the sun-bleached, suburban environs of L.A. Now, as part of Pacific Standard Time, we have “Seismic Shift: Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and California Landscape Photography, 1944-1984” at the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside. It provides a wider historical frame for the movement’s significance in California.
Baltz and Deal were prominent members of the New Topographics crew and both had connections to UC Riverside: Baltz as a participant in the museum’s inaugural exhibition in 1973, and Deal, who passed away last year, as a professor of photography. But the show isn’t only about them. Instead, its chief contribution is to position New Topographics, not only in relation to Minimalism or Conceptual art, but within a tradition of landscape photography that begins with Ansel Adams.
To that end, the exhibition sets up a historical narrative that moves from the modern pictorialism of Adams and Edward Weston to the more personal, emotive visions of Minor White, and the almost new-age mysticism of Wynne Bullock’s swirls of sea and sun. The New Topographics photographers, it argues, turned away from the romanticism and grandeur of these works in favor of a more rigorous, hard-nosed look at how industry and suburbia were transforming the natural landscape. But the show also reveals how this schism was never absolute. “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California” from 1944, shows Adams’ mastery of depth of field; the craggy white mountains in the background are as crisp as the flurry of trees in the foreground. However, from another perspective, the work’s stark division into horizontal (albeit undulating) strips of white and black looks like a more organic version of Baltz’s “East Wall, Western Carpet Mills, 1231 Warner, Tustin” from 1974, in which the mountains are now a flat, two-tone, rectangular building, floating on a sea of pampas grass.
Still, the shift is obvious when it occurs: Upon rounding the corner from an alcove full of more traditional landscapes, one encounters Baltz’s “Irvine Ranch” from 1967: an image filled with nothing but rocks. Compared with the easy divisions of sky and land in many of the previous works, it feels like a slap in the face.
Yet, Baltz’s approach isn’t without precedent. William A. Garnett’s aerial, before-and-after shots of a walnut grove from 1953 don’t have any sky either. They represent the trees as wispy dots on a flat grid that disintegrates into chaos when the grove is bulldozed. These images reflect not only a systematic approach, but resemble reductive abstract paintings.
The show also raises the question of whether Baltz, Deal and company were really as impassive and straightforward as they claimed. Many of their photographs, after all, are exquisitely beautiful images of ostensibly ugly things: industrial parks, abandoned buildings, hillsides cleared and prepped for another generic development. Were they just romanticizing different things?
Deal is quoted in the exhibition catalog saying, “I had no intention of turning my back on California landscape photography traditions or anything of the sort. I was just making work, and that’s what it turned out to be.” Of course, from our vantage point in the age of global warming and abandoned subdivisions, these works take on a prophetic, critical air they might not have had for their makers. Looking at John Divola’s rigorously composed shots of the windows of abandoned houses, or Leland Rice’s “Tar Covered Vat and Condominiums, Long Beach, California,” which is framed to look as if suburbia itself were leaking toxic waste, it’s hard to remain neutral.
California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St., Riverside, (951) 827-4787, through Dec. 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.cmp.ucr.edu
Photos, from top: Lewis Baltz, ‘East Wall, Western Carpet Mills, 1231 Warner, Tustin,’ from the series ‘New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California,’ 1974. Credit: Collection of the Orange County Museum of Art; gift of Dr. and Mrs. Richard Squire Jonas. © Lewis Baltz; courtesy Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica.
Wynn Bullock, ‘Sunset, Big Sur Country,’ 1957 Credit: UCR/California Museum of Photography. © 1957/2011 Bullock Family Photography LLC. All rights reserved.
Joe Deal, ‘Glendale,’ from ‘The Fault Zone’ portfolio, 1979. Credit: UCR/California Museum of Photography. © The Estate of Joe Deal; courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York, N.Y.