A Late Start Is No Drawback for Callis : This L.A. artist’s unnerving pictures cause complex sensations

If you flipped through Jo Ann Callis’ files of negatives and assembled an abbreviated chronology of her photographs, it might look something like this:

* “Man in Tie” (1977), a cropped view of a disheveled fellow who seems to be backed into a wall with a spotlight bearing down on his mouth and neck.

* “Salt, Pepper and Fire” (1980), a still life presenting a flaming plate of food as an epiphany on a breakfast table.

* “Glove, Balloon, Shoehorn” (1983), a line-up of ordinary objects that look like instruments for surgery or abusive sex.


* “Long Beach Convention Center” (1984), depicting a rest area for Olympic athletes that has all the charm of prison barracks.

* “Woman Twirling” (1985), in which a whirling human figure echoes a wooden lamp base shaped like a dancing couple.

* “A Crimson Wind” (1987), a surreal image of a winged tree in a sparkling midnight landscape.

* “Interior Spill” (1989), a bizarre room where a bullet-like object rises in front of an outlined chair and an ink blot.


Strange images all, they are infused with mystery, tension or dread. While Callis’ most whimsical pictures slip away into a stream of consciousness, the only escape from her most unnerving photos is that they are equivocal. Her psychologically charged images immediately translate into feelings, but these are complex sensations that cause viewers to wonder if they are reading too many overtones of sex, violence and social criticism into benign photographs.

Is that flashlight shining on a woman’s naked thigh a phallus or just a flashlight? Is that extermination chamber merely an athletes’ shower room at UCLA? Is that winged apparition a buried bird or a liberated tree? Does “Man in the Grey Clay Suit” depict an automaton or a visionary businessman?

Callis leaves answers up to viewers, but she will probably face a new group of questions this summer, in response to exhibitions that are giving the Los Angeles artist coast-to-coast exposure. The most prestigious show, “California Photography: Remaking Make-Believe,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Aug. 20, is described as a concise survey of recent photographic work by seven California artists who have taken a leading role in the development of synthetic and conceptual approaches to the medium. John Baldessari, Robert Heinecken, John Divola, Larry Sultan, Nancy Barton, Larry Johnson and Callis are represented by five images each in the show organized by Susan Kismaric.

The eighth annual “Awards in the Visual Arts” exhibition, including Callis and nine other artists, opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and is on its way to the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, Aug. 19 to Oct. 15. The show will travel to the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Jan. 31 to March 18, 1990. The MOMA and La Jolla exhibitions follow “Jo Ann Callis: Objects of Reverie,” a 12-year survey of Callis’ photography, recently at the Des Moines Art Center.

The three shows are the latest achievements for an artist who got a late start but rose to prominence quite suddenly. During an interview at her home in Culver City, she filled in the blanks between her well-known pictures.

“As a child, art was what I was good at, so that’s what I did,” she said, making quick work of her youth in Cincinnati.

She began college in 1958 at Ohio State University but dropped out during her sophomore year when she married a doctor in training. “I was married at 19 1/2 and I had my first child when I was 20. This was a big change in my life and I wasn’t ready for it,” she said, offering no details and mentioning it only because she thinks the pain of domestic problems has affected her work.

The young couple moved to Southern California in 1961, when their first son, Stephen, was born. The same year, Callis’ father died of cancer--a shock that the artist said was compounded by the realization that she couldn’t take her child and go home if her marriage was a failure. She had a second son, Michael, in 1963 and spent most of her energy during the ‘60s caring for the children. The couple was divorced in 1975, when the boys were teen-agers.


Callis’ only move in the direction of art during the ‘60s was to take night classes in sculpture at Cal State Long Beach. In 1970, she enrolled at UCLA and went to work on her undergraduate degree, completing it in 1974. She concentrated on design, she said, “because I thought I had to do something practical. That led me to take a photography course just to learn how to use a camera.”

The class was “fortuitous,” Callis recalled, because her instructor, Robert Heinecken, didn’t give assignments but encouraged students “to do what we wanted, to explore ideas and psychological insights.”

Intrigued, she entered graduate school in UCLA’s photography department and completed her MFA degree in 1977. “I was interested in how I could make ideas and feelings visible--in a tangible way, using metaphors and symbolism. Setting things up (in a studio) always seemed the way to go. I never wanted to go out into the world to photograph,” she said.

Among the artists who influenced her work are photographers Pierre Molinere and Ralph Meatyard, Surrealists such as Rene Magritte and Hans Bellmer and poet Sylvia Plath.

After a long delay in finding her medium and time to use her talent, Callis seems to have hit the ground running when she took up photography. She quickly figured out how to photograph what was inside her head, and her work soon attracted professional recognition. She showed her work widely while in graduate school, was selected for the Whitney Biennial in 1981 and has compiled an impressive list of exhibitions, awards, critical notices and public collections that own her work.

But it’s difficult to live on sales of fine art photographs, so Callis teaches at CalArts and works in a modest studio, in a converted garage behind the neat bungalow that she shares with her second husband, artist David Pann.

Despite her international reputation,Callis said that getting the work out can still be a struggle.

“I stopped photographing for a year and a half after my (1985) show at MOCA. I started drawing and trying to paint. Finally I just decided to do something I like, to make objects out of clay.” At first she made them as subjects for drawings, “to see where the light would fall,” but eventually she began to photograph the clay pieces--at first isolated in draped settings and later in drawn and painted environments. The results are silver gelatin photographs on linen that merge drawing, painting, sculpture and photography.


A “love of objects--how they look and what they mean” permeates her work more than ever. Instead of transforming ordinary found objects and placing them in unexpected relationships, as she once did, Callis creates mysterious gray clay forms over wood armatures that she builds in her studio: a fat tree with a mass of arms, a foot pierced by a nail, a batch of smokestacks, a pair of billed hats that resemble ducks’ heads. The first of these works were darkly dramatic presentations, rather like objects brought on stage from the wilds of the psyche. More recent examples are relatively complex, unsettling scenes in which each image or object affects the meaning of the others.

Despite changes in the look of her work--from black-and-white to color and back again, from human models to objects, and from ordinary to exotic objects--Callis said her work has followed a fairly steady pattern. “I tend to come to the end of a body of work, then wonder how I can get more out of the idea,” she said.

Wresting more from her current idea may mean creating objects that would survive as sculptures--perhaps wood and plaster pieces created in the round instead of the one-sided objects that are fabricated to be photographed and end up in the trash can as the clay cracks and falls off the armatures.

An intuitive artist who claims no interest in “the technical part of photography,” she is endlessly fascinated by the camera’s powers of transformation. And she still gets surprises. “Even when the objects are all set up, the camera sees from its own point of view,” she said. “If you could see the set-ups--they look so hokey, so nothing. Just a little clay thing, a piece of canvas that I paint over and over, and a bunch of lights. It’s nothing.”

Until it becomes a photograph.