There seems to be no end to the claims people make for the efficacy of visual images. Before his execution, Ted Bundy soberly proclaimed that pornographic photographs had led him to a career of rape and murder. Advertisers believe that repeated exposure to images of happy, upscale people using their clients' products will produce increased sales.
And social action groups attempt to shape public opinion on controversial issues with pictures of leaping dolphins or ominous-looking nuclear energy installations.
When it comes to art, however, you don't hear too many testimonials. Sure, some artists will pinpoint a particular work that caused them to change their style or investigate a new medium. But you don't hear about people converting to Catholicism after exposure to museums full of Renaissance Madonnas, pining for plump women after viewing Rubens' nudes or sitting down to write their congressmen after seeing Leon Golub's huge paintings of terrorists.
And when art exhibits are put together to promote a cause, they tend to preach to the converted--if the point comes through at all. In any case, art being the squirrelly, anarchic thing that it is, it tends (thank goodness!) to echo the uncertainties and randomness of real life rather than the black-and-white dogmatism of slogans.
Through September, BC Space in Laguna Beach is presenting a rotating series of exhibits under the title "The Third One Out: Reflections of Planet Earth." The context is clearly ecological, as borne out by a quotation from R. Buckminster Fuller and a videotape about the Laguna Canyon Project, an anti-development enterprise masterminded by gallery director Mark Chamberlain and former co-director Jerry Burchfield. (The eighth phase of the project, "The Tell," will be a 600-foot-long photomural pieced together from 40,000 photographs sent in by Orange County residents and erected May 1 on Laguna Canyon Road.)
The photographs on view through April 1--by Dixon Wolf, Michael Honer and Robert Johnson--are clearly about nature in some way or other, but the viewer is generally obliged to do quite a bit of reading between the lines.
Wolf's small black-and-white photo triptychs from his "Landscape Foundations" series are the most baffling of the lot. It's not easy to fathom why he strings together particular images. Not only that, it's often hard to imagine why anyone would want to preserve such boring-looking views in the first place. A ditch with construction pipes in it? A panoramic view of a housing development? A bunch of survey stakes stuck in a mound of earth?
But there is a sly method to this madness. Wolf says in a statement that he is interested in "the process of human interaction with nature; how the view changes (over) time." He combines photographs "to suggest the relationship of places and events, memories and allusions."
One of his untitled triptychs contains these images: a slightly blurry boulder overlooking a flat terrain, a shot of a room with a mold-covered wall and abandoned highchair, and a sober angel marking the gravestone of a child who died a month short of her third birthday, in 1897.
Clearly, this is a work about loss and the passage of time--which has turned a household object into a poignant frozen memory but made infant mortality far less common than it once was. The first image remains somewhat puzzling, but perhaps it refers to the future of the open landscape, which may someday be regarded with the same bittersweet nostalgia despite the notion of "progress" inherent in the idea of settling and building on the land.
Honer's layered, textured, enlarged and tinted photo-silkscreen works involve juxtapositions of images that remind viewers of a kinder, gentler era of wide-open spaces (golden grasses in a field, old clapboard buildings) with the barbed-wire fences, demolition and construction activities, insistent billboard imagery and freeway traffic of our own time. But the images Honer uses to create these contrasts and the way he puts them together tend to be rather formulaic, lacking in subtlety and freshness.
Johnson is the most traditional of the three photographers. His "Illusive Landscapes" range from views of rocks with the slight sexual tinge of body parts (a well-worn version of the Edward Weston approach to landscape-as-woman) to landscapes in which strips are torn out and replaced by differently colored images of the same thing--also not exactly a novel treatment.
Chamberlain argues that the exhibition has done its job "if one person's attitude of indifference is altered." Once you bring up ecological issues, he says, "it's surprising how many people have had them as an underlying concern."
Asked what he expects people to do after viewing the work, he suggests that they could start by contributing to the Laguna Canyon Project. But isn't that just another work of art? Well, yes and no, he answers. Unlike art in a gallery, the photomural will be seen by everyone who happens to drive by. But what if they see it just as another attractive object, and don't get the point?
The issue can be debated endlessly, but it just doesn't seem plausible that even the most high-mindedly "activist" art exhibitions can or will change the status quo. Art tends to reconfirm the values we already hold.
In the end, no matter how powerful a work of art is--and the ones in this show are either extremely low key or rather tediously dogmatic--it is unlikely to move mountains. Or, in this case, keep them where they are.
This installment of "The Third One Out" remains on view through April 1 at BC Space, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 497-1880.