"You spend all this time making images, and what goes out? A picture of you standing in front of the image. What does that mean?"

John Divola is submitting good naturedly to a photo session and interview while expressing the usual photographer's discomfort with being on the wrong side of the lens. Meanwhile, 61 of his photographs are doing exactly as he wishes--standing alone as images, in a show that highlights 10 years of his work, at the Municipal Art Gallery through May 19.

As Divola half-jokes about being reduced to "a cultural stereotype" in a newspaper photograph, his own work probes the nature of photographic representation--how photographs alter real space, as well as what a camera can and can't do.

Pictures taken in corners of dilapidated buildings contradict three-dimensional space with the flatness of patterns spray-painted on walls or with lines strung across angles. Landscapes and interiors melt into romantic abstractions in color photographs of a disintegrating house at Zuma Beach.

A humorous series on "Things You Can't Photograph" pursues such elusive subjects as gravity and magnetism. Some Cibachrome prints of yellow rings--made of various materials and set against different grounds--attempt to recreate "Things You See When You Press Your Eyes With the Palms of Your Hands."

And a four-part piece, combining separately framed prints of a woman, a dog, a head carved of ice and a horse, asks the perplexing question, "Who can you trust?" The words (one per picture) are engraved on brass plates attached to the frames, like placards on the ornate frames of Old Master paintings.

All this from a well-known artist and California Institute of the Arts professor who never planned to be a photographer and still doesn't consider it "a viable vocational option." He says his first extended camera work--for a high school yearbook--was done for the "ignoble motive" of getting out of an unbearable class. He even turned down a scholarship, resulting from his early work, because he "didn't want to be a photographer."

But the medium lured Divola back, and he earned an MFA in photography at UCLA in 1974. "As undergraduates, we were working with photographic printmaking techniques (under the influence of Robert Rauschenberg)," he recalls. "We thought, if you make it look like art, it will be art. I had elephants flying through the air, all kinds of things, until I finally asked, 'What's this got to do with me?' "

That question led to a temporary determination to "be objective" and to base his work on what he knew. Divola began riding his bicycle through his San Fernando Valley neighborhood and photographing--among other things--women watering lawns.

As Divola became aware of all the formal decisions he was making and the subjectivity of his own responses during this "objective" quest, he also began to identify the three components that he says are now essential to his work: his own personality and state of mind while taking a photograph; the nature of the medium, and the character of the place and situation being photographed.

"I thought about the whole activity as part of the context, and about the fact that I live in California and not in New York." He speaks of his art as an "experiential envelope" that "alludes to the time, place and circumstance of making, choosing and framing a photograph." If certain works suggest social criticism or cosmic metaphors, he says that it is the result of audience interpretation and not a reading prescribed by him.

The earliest work shown, a group of black-and-white prints from Divola's 1974 "Vandalism" series, was his last at UCLA, done for his MFA thesis. Though shot in a deserted house, these pictures read as abstractions oscillating between two- and three-dimensional space. "I had no money and no studio. I was looking around for something silver to photograph," he explains. Instead, he found a place that he could paint silver--and other colors--photographing as he "doodled" on walls of the empty shack.

His later "Forced Entry" and "Zuma" series also make use of domestic architecture in desecrated form, but he insists that the apparent quotient of social conscience is only intended in a "general way." This work takes a relatively violent-looking turn in "Forced Entry" photos, depicting houses in the Los Angeles International Airport Noise Abatement Zone.

In the "Zuma" series, perhaps his best-known work, Divola moves into color and makes seductively beautiful photographs of the skeleton of a house at the beach.

In recent years, Divola has photographed "blanks" (silhouettes in landscapes or studio set-ups), wrestled with the difficulty of weighing two images against each other in large diptychs and examined the impact of color as he turns a horse bright red or a woman's face blue. He also has carried on a continuing investigation of language in art.

Long fascinated with the contemporary legacy of the illustrated text, he has grappled with ways to incorporate words in his work but used them only rarely and with notable restraint. "My propensity is visual," this photo-image-conscious man says. "You have to be careful with language because it overwhelms."

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