As the art world grows more international, assigning art to geographical niches becomes an increasingly tricky proposition. The latest case in point is “California Photography: Remaking Make-Believe” at the Museum of Modern Art to Aug. 22.
This engrossing, thoughtfully selected exhibition presents the work of seven artists who have turned away from straight photography and developed distinctive approaches to studio or conceptual work. They represent three generations: John Baldessari of CalArts and Robert Heinecken of UCLA, both influential teachers with international followings; Jo Ann Callis, John Divola and Larry Sultan, younger artists who are well established, and Nancy Barton and Larry Johnson, two 1984 graduates of CalArts who are beginning to gain recognition.
Curator Susan Kismaric had several good reasons for presenting such a show--the primary one being to survey “a philosophical reconsideration of traditional ideas about photography.” Unfortunately she couldn’t resist an East Coast tendency to wrap art from California in a mantle of cultural isolation and Hollywood influence.
“Street life in Los Angeles is limited to shopping on Rodeo Drive,” Kismaric writes in the exhibition catalogue, revealing that she has never checked out Westwood, Melrose Avenue, Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles; Main Street in Santa Monica; the Venice boardwalk; the coastal bike path or the beach scenes from Malibu to Hermosa Beach.
This presumed lack of street life is one of several factors said to account for California photographers’ inclination to work in their studios and to produce “synthetic” photographs--artworks created or appropriated from visual or written material rather than live situations. Other reasons offered are Southern California’s car culture, the film and television industries and--what else?--"California’s physical and cultural distance from the photographic Establishment in the East.”
There is some truth to these assertions, but they obscure the show’s premise: profound changes in the field of photography. While “straight” photography remains viable, there has been a major shift to studio work that is grounded in conceptual art and responds to popular culture or personal experience. This development in creative hotbeds at UCLA and CalArts has more to do with fortuitous gatherings of influential teachers and receptive students than those schools’ locations, however.
Baldessari’s works--each composed of two or more borrowed images--set the tone for one of the exhibition’s most consistent themes: artists taking pictures of pictures. In “Green Gown (Death),” for example, a pale green cut-out of an evening gown floats above a movie still of a dead cowboy. These two remnants of human life spoof ideals of masculine strength and femininity, but their images are removed from life by the fiction of film and photographic reproduction.
Johnson takes the Hollywood aesthetic one step further by simply photographing names of movie stars on fluffy clouded skies. In one sense, there is nothing to see in these pictures; in another, they contain a wise statement. Johnson seems to be saying that photographs have made these stars so familiar that the mere sight of their names in print recalls thousands of pictures. It’s a point well taken.
Heinecken’s overlays of magazine ads are arranged to emphasize how the media merge sex and commerce--a familiar theme that has worn thin in his work. Color prints from Heinecken’s 1988 portfolio “Recto/Verso” portray socially acceptable orgies of consumption and desire.
Divola and Callis’ work is more equivocal. Divola pairs separate photographs of, say, a dolphin and a set of colored cards or an electric fan and a block of ice--all printed in unnatural colors--and asks what we make of them. As Kismaric notes, the pictures exert “an alluring mischievousness” as they simultaneously invite and defy interpretation.
Callis’ subtly tinted black and white prints on linen are darkly mysterious. Theatrical in composition and heavily framed, they dredge up memories of “museum quality” historical art while injecting a note of whimsy. There’s a lone, nude male standing on a rock in a “stream” that appears to be frozen in time. Other pictures present a winged tree in a stark, starry landscape, a chair propelled into space by a pole, and human foot bloodlessly pierced by a nail.
These are not pictures of pictures, but photographs of clay objects that Callis has constructed and shot against painted backdrops. The profound sense of isolation that permeates these haunting scenes is mollified by their dreamlike ambiance and a gentle sense of humor.
Sultan and Barton both base their work at MOMA on their families and bring an unusual amount of compassion to a field that is often known for stylish irony. Sultan’s portraits of his aging parents may strike casual viewers as dumb snapshots, but they contain a world of information about the couple and Sultan’s affection for them. “The anxiety about my project is the wish to take photography literally: to stop time. I want my parents to live forever,” he writes in text accompanying the pictures.
Barton casts her mother as a diva in old opera posters and combines them with text (interviews with her mother, opera librettos and feminist writings) on Formica panels. The human story behind this art is that Barton’s mother gave up a musical career for marriage and family, but the familiar tale gains immediacy as Barton frames it in a feminist context and exposes her own guilt.