Litterscapes Inspired by Road Debris

When photographer Irving Penn, best known for his high-fashion work, began in the 1970s making gorgeous platinum prints of cigarette butts he found on the sidewalks of New York, it seemed a brazen act.

Penn was not the first to elevate cast-offs to high-art status. (Kurt Schwitters, for example, made wry and tender collages out of cigarette wrappers and other materials back in the 1920s). But the photographer seemed to dramatize how artistic scrutiny can transform even the humblest, filthiest objects into bizarrely glamorous images.

Mark Chamberlain’s and Jerry Burchfield’s Cibachrome photograms of rubble lying alongside Laguna Canyon Road seem to bear out this truism. In these big-scale photographic works--on view through July 15 at the Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Beach--the non-biodegradable flotsam and jetsam of contemporary society metamorphose into a happy dance of shape and color.

That casual, carefree look initially seems to belie the intensive documentary process the artists have pursued in their nine-year-long, ecologically motivated documentation of the entire 9-mile length of the canyon road. The Canyon Project, which began in 1980, is rather like an epic poem, an engineering project and a political statement, wrapped up in one unwieldy package.


Chamberlain (owner of BC Space, a photography gallery in Laguna Beach) and Burchfield (formerly his partner, now a photography instructor at Cypress College) have intensively photographed the entire length of the road by day and by night. They have even stretched the resulting 267-foot-long photographs alongside the road and re-photographed them in relation to the habitat they reflect.

The latest installment of this magnum opus is “The Tell,” a 600-foot-long roadside structure, made of collaged photographs donated by Orange County residents, which is due to be completed next month.

Three years ago, the artists collected bags of Laguna Canyon Road trash, tagging each one like a museum specimen. The items they picked up--displayed in a heap of decayed glory directly outside and inside the gallery entrance--include beer, soda and oil cans; wire; hubcaps; car taillight lenses; shoes; cassettes; trashed metal and paper signs (“No Parking,” “Keep Out,” “Earn $400 to $1,200 per Month”), and the plastic rings from six-packs. Mingled with them are dried grasses and dirt from the natural environment.

These items were arranged on photo-sensitive paper and exposed to light. The resulting prints, achieved without the use of a camera, record only two-dimensional, silhouettelike imprints of the objects, washed by the brilliant hues--magenta, yellow and cyan (a bright greenish-blue)--of the photographic emulsion. Stretching across two or more sheets of photographic paper, these glossy, spacious (as big as 5 feet by 16 feet) photograms bear a strong family resemblance to one another.


The mix of colors does vary a bit, and so does the degree of precision or blurring with which the objects are rendered. Certain identifiable forms pop up repeatedly--a shoe, a can, a fork, a translucent plastic drink top--but often it’s hard to tell precisely what you’re looking at. The photographic process strips away the surface features of these objects, ignores their worn or rusted state, and reduces them to vague, dark shapes bobbing in a colorful soup.

At the same time, the artists’ approach veers between gee-whiz humor (calling this phase of the project a “garbological study”) and misplaced pedantry. It makes no real sense that the 20 photograms on view in the upstairs gallery--each one made from one bag of debris--are arranged in the order the objects were collected, from the northwest to the southeast sides of the road. Since the images are awfully similar, who cares what portion of the road they were drawn from?

The artists do, of course. Their zeal is fueled not so much by aesthetic concerns as by a passionate desire to preserve the future of what Chamberlain has described--in a long, passionate article in the Fall issue of the Journal of Orange County Studies--as “the last remaining natural corridor to the Pacific Ocean in Orange County and one of the largest natural open spaces in Southern California.”

The point of the Canyon Project as a whole is to focus on the extraordinary quality of Laguna Canyon Road and to serve as a last-ditch effort to retain its rural aspect. Public Enemy No. 1, in this regard, is the proposed 17 1/2-mile San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, which would bisect the road with an 800-foot-wide ribbon of highway. This corridor and its accompanying development would severely damage the natural spring-fed lakes in the area, as well as indigenous plant and animal life, Chamberlain says.

“The progress of the past is here today,” he wrote, “and, with it, the promise of a future dimmed by the smoke from our ubiquitous machines, where countryside is the median strip between our roads.”

Like many long and ambitious projects, the Canyon Project sometimes seems to huff and puff over details when a larger, simpler, more generalized viewpoint might be more aesthetically valid. But regarded as alchemical legerdemain--or just wishful thinking--the refashioning of junk into lyrical daydreams is a welcome, lighter interlude in a long and weary campaign.

The exhibition, “New Work From the Canyon Project,” supported by a grant from the Festival of the Arts, remains on view through July 15 at the Art Institute of Southern California, 2222 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Friday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 497-3309.